Film critic Scott Wilson reviews the latest film from acclaimed Iranian director Asghar Farhadi.
Everybody Knows – ★★★★☆
While not the worst offender, Everybody Knows is a reminder of how film distribution is no longer fit for purpose. Premiering in May of last year, released in America this past September, and only now reaching the UK in the middle of March, it’s a film which feels like it’s been around forever. The acclaimed Eighth Grade – which received its Scottish premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival in February – has had a worse time of it, having been in wide release Stateside since last summer, but won’t be out here until April. It is little wonder cinema has an issue when it comes to online streaming; in an ultra-connected world, it’s a bit of a drag to be left behind by cultural conversations because a film hasn’t been released near you yet.
Asghar Farhadi is no no-name director either, two of his last three films winning the Best Foreign Language award at the Oscars, with A Separation widely regarded as one of the decade’s greatest movies. He may be best known internationally for refusing to attend 2017’s ceremony, protesting Donald Trump’s travel ban. Himself an Iranian citizen, Farhadi picked up that year’s award for The Salesman, with Anousheh Ansari and Firouz Naderi receiving the award on his behalf, the first Iranian in space and the director of Solar Systems Exploration at NASA, respectively.
Everybody Knows finds Farhadi in fine melodramatic form. An extended family come together for a wedding just outside Madrid. In the middle of the night, the teenage daughter of Penelope Cruz’s Laura disappears. On her bed are newspaper clippings of a previous kidnapping, pointing to her disappearance as criminal in nature. Laura’s childhood sweetheart, Paco played with charm by Javier Bardem, leads the search for Irene as everyone who attended the wedding becomes a suspect.
There’s a depressing humanity in acknowledging that a tragedy, such as a disappearance, still isn’t enough to bring people together.
Under the sweltering Spanish sun, there’s a lackadaisical feel to the film, separating it from urgent thrillers with similar plots. Characters sit around discussing what could have happened, who might know what, who should be turned to for help, as if the process is more important than the action. Which, in cinema, it often is, characterisation being key to a film’s heart, with the plot serving as a vehicle for us to know other, fictional, people.
It means Everybody Knows feels more like a character drama than a mystery. As much attention is given to Laura and Paco’s relationship, and their relationship with everyone around them, as Irene’s disappearance. Cruz and Bardem play it perfectly, too: they appear in fewer scenes together as the film goes on, but their dynamic, established early on, carries through to the narrative’s mature conclusion.
With so many characters cramped into one small area, historical tensions boil over. It might seem like now is not the time to discuss finances, but money plays a huge part in the film, synonymous with power and the lack of it, the exchange of it. Even when people are trying to help one another, prejudices and grudges hang over families, and pride gets in the way of sensible decisions. There’s a depressing humanity in acknowledging that a tragedy, such as a disappearance, still isn’t enough to bring people together.
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Laura’s husband Alejandro never attended the wedding, but in showing up to help search for Irene, his faith-led approach frustrates everyone. His belief that God will return the missing teen to the family leads to quiet clashes with Paco over the latter’s determination to help. Whether it’s because of his religion or a stubborn masculinity, Ricardo Darin does an expert job making a sympathetic figure out of an often passive and unhelpful character.
While it’s tempting to have a part of the mind reserved for ‘whodunnit?’ during a mystery film, it’s worth letting Everybody Knows just happen. When it’s all over, what is most memorable are the strong performances informing characters who love each other, suspect each other, and don’t know how to communicate with each other. What remains is the determination by some and the lack of cooperation by others to work together. It isn’t A Separation, but in turning to an adult take on what could have been a derivative melodrama, Farhadi continues a glowing run of films.