What’s most striking about writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s (A Separation, The Salesman) new film, Everybody Knows, even with strong performances and its setting in lush Spanish wine country taken into account, is the language of the thing. And that’s not a euphemism, some reference to a universal cinematic language. I mean actual, spoken language.
Farhadi, an Oscar-winner for both A Separation and The Salesman, is an Iranian filmmaker, and his previous works are, not surprisingly, set mainly in that country and delivered in Persian. Everybody Knows, on the other hand, transports the action to a village northeast of Madrid, for a film that’s entirely in Spanish. According to the production notes, Farhadi was inspired to write the film over a decade ago while traveling in Spain, after seeing a notice for a young girl who’d gone missing; he wrote the script first in Persian, later having it translated into Spanish and adapted to incorporate more European sensibilities.
This alone is a feat of filmmaking, an approach few others would ever even attempt let alone achieve with the likes of marquee names like Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem in the starring roles. That the film as a whole—the story of a woman (Cruz) who returns home with her children for a family wedding that’s tragically disrupted—is at least a half hour too long and suffers from a bit of a wandering plot line (in an effort to be mysterious, one assumes) shouldn’t discount any of Farhadi’s commendable filmmaking efforts.
Cruz is Laura, a woman from the Spanish village where our story is set, who flies in from Buenos Aires, where she now lives with her husband (Ricardo Darín) and two children (free-spirited Irene played by Carla Campra and Iván Chavero as young Diego), for her younger sister’s wedding (Inma Cuesta), a traditional affair at the cathedral on the town square. This is a close-knit group, a family that’s lived and worked this land for generations, their stories and secrets as intertwined as the branches on the grapevines. Still living and working the same vineyard where they grew up is Paco (Bardem), Laura’s first love and an honorary member of the family. Their reunion is less fraught than one might expect, as it’s quickly clear that their feelings for each other remain strong, if evolved. Both are now happily married, living an ocean apart, after all; he’s practically an uncle to her children and though she and Paco’s wife, Bea (Bárbara Lennie) aren’t exactly besties, there’s a mutual respect.
All seems effortlessly jovial as the wedding guests return to the boutique hotel run by Laura’s other sister and her husband for the reception. In the middle of the celebration, long after the sun has set and the little ones have gone off to bed, the rain moves in and the power goes out on the party. It’s only then that Laura realizes the devastating truth: her daughter is gone without a trace, apparently stolen from her bedroom during the blackout.
It’s here that Farhadi’s script starts to lose its way, as the tonal shift is so sharp it’s off-putting. Once we’re solidly ensconced in the kidnapping story, however bumpy the transition, the players settle in to territory that’s much more familiar to those who’s seen Farhadi’s earlier work. This extended family is soon revealed to have much more going on under the surface than a picturesque villa wedding would have you believe, as relationships are clarified, lies come into the light and and overall sense of tension descends, one that’s fueled by much more than just Irene’s disappearance. Were Everybody Knows a hyper-focused family drama about love—familial, romantic, etc.—and the passage of time, chances are it would be another notch on Farhadi’s Oscar belt.
As it is, the filmmaker gets distracted by his effort to thread the kidnapping mystery into the family’s past and present, and while it serves as a catalyst for certain confrontations to finally be realized, it’s ultimately (and unfortunately) not what I cared most about in the film as a whole. If the first third features a choppy transition into the drama of the second act, the eventual reveal of who’s behind the crime and why is about as rocky as the soil at the family’s vineyard. Seemingly out of the blue and involving characters we haven’t spent much time with at all, it’s difficult to invest at all in the outcome we’re barreling towards.
And yet, Everybody Knows is a gorgeous film (cinematographer José Luis Alcaine has worked on many of Pedro Almodovar’s best films) that features some truly wonderful moments of interpersonal connection, tucked as they are in between a stilted storyline. Bárbara Lennie, as Bardem’s wife Bea, delivers one of the most impressive performances in the film, particularly in a moment where constantly living in the shadow of her husband’s “one true love” finally becomes too much to bear. Like in his previous films, this deep dive into human connection and what drives us both together and apart, is where Farhadi shines.