The opening film at the 71st Cannes Film Festival has an unbeatable blend of European glamour, international art-house credibility, and Hollywood stardust: the fact that it is one of the festival’s strongest and most substantial opening films in years is a bonus. Its Iranian writer-director, Asghar Farhadi, won the Oscar for best foreign language film earlier this year, and he may well be nominated again next year for his tense and engrossing Spanish-language drama, Everybody Knows, starring Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem.
Cruz’s character, Laura, lives in Argentina with her husband, Alejandro (Ricardo Darin, rocking a blow-dried quiff and beard worthy of the Bee Gees). When her younger sister gets married, Alejandro has to stay in Buenos Aires on business, but Laura flies to her picturesque home village in Spain with their two children. Also in attendance are an older sister, a brother-in-law, a cantankerous dad, and various nephews and nieces. It can be hard work to keep track of who is related to whom and how, but perhaps that’s the point. In this village, everyone’s lives are entangled in innumerable ways, which could be why Laura was keen to emigrate.
Cruz’s study in anguish and terror proves once again what a tremendous actress she is
One of the wedding guests is Paco (Bardem), a brawny, bearded vineyard owner with a ready laugh and a piratical earring. He is happily married to Bea (Barbara Lennie), but there is a reason why the initials LP are carved into the dilapidated bell tower of the village church. Laura and Paco were in love for years – as everybody knows.
Farhadi devotes a long time to the sun-drenched wedding preparations, the jolly service, and the drunken courtyard party afterwards. Too long, maybe; this is one of those wedding parties which gets so exhausting that you’re tempted to find a room and have a nap. And, indeed, that’s exactly what Laura’s teenager daughter Irene (Carla Campra) does. But when Laura goes upstairs to check on her, the girl has gone, and a text message arrives minutes later: Irene has been kidnapped.
Cruz’s study in anguish and terror proves once again what a tremendous actress she is. And Farhadi makes the scenario truly nightmarish. Another local girl was kidnapped and murdered a few years earlier, so when a text warns Laura that Irene will be killed if anyone contacts the police, she is paralysed by fear.
Farhadi’s dramas are so involving because he knows everything about the characters’ complicated histories and desires
But Everybody Knows isn’t exactly a kidnap thriller: no one calls for Liam Neeson and his very particular set of skills. Instead, it’s another of Farhadi’s expertly played games of Unhappy Families. The detective plotting may be reminiscent of an Agatha Christie whodunnit, as one character after another is given a motive for the crime, but the film’s main subject is how the earth-shaking trauma reignites smouldering resentments and brings long-buried secrets to the surface. Rather than coming together to find Laura, the villagers gossip and bicker about who might be rich enough to pay the ransom money, and who might need be poor enough to need it; who would want to kidnap the girl; and who would want to rescue her. It’s clear that, if and when Irene is recovered, nothing will ever be quite the same again.
One reason why Farhadi’s dramas are so involving – and they have more in common with novels than with most films in this respect – is that he knows everything about the characters’ complicated histories and desires. Just as the production designer clutters every room with books and trinkets and other evidence of its inhabitants’ past, Farhadi packs his dialogue with reminders that everyone on screen had lives before the film started, and that those lives will continue after the credits roll.
One downside of this thoroughness, though, is that he can be programmatic in doling out speeches and revelations, as if he is being careful to ensure that every actor gets their own turn to shine. The plot loses some of its momentum because the characters keep sitting down and having reasoned, articulate debates about their issues. It might have been a relief if, once in a while, someone had screamed or shouted or stormed off. But that drunken wedding party, it turns out, is the only time they really let loose.
Ultimately, Everybody Knows – which, to my surprise, has nothing to do with the Leonard Cohen song – isn’t Farhadi at his searing best. The regular, methodical airing of family grievances around the kitchen table calls to mind a soap opera. Still, with its rich story, its weighty themes, and the beautiful acting of its charismatic stars (and real-life spouses), Cruz and Bardem, it’s the classiest soap opera around.
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