Following up a pair of Best Foreign Language Film Oscars with a star-studded trip to Spain wasn’t exactly the path I imagined for Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Salesman). For his first feature outside his native country, Farhadi takes a handful of his pet themes and two big movie stars, and plops them into a sunny and gorgeous village in Spain.
It’s probably as close as the filmmaker comes to making something populist. While that may mean that it’s a minor effort in his filmography, that doesn’t make the movie worth dismissing. There’s quite a bit of fun and turmoil to be enjoyed for those who care about such things.
Everybody Knows stars Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem as Laura and Paco, a pair of estranged childhood friends tossed together for the first time in years due to a family wedding in their hometown. The two were also lovers for the bulk of their youth, but barely acknowledge that anymore. Of course, as the title suggests, everyone in their overlapping family and gossipy village knows. No matter. At first, they have fun with it. The wedding is a joyous occasion and Laura’s irrepressible daughter (Carla Campra) lights ups everyone’s day – that is, until the sun sets and the teenager goes missing. She’s kidnapped, held for ransom by mysterious people who know that in addition to bringing in some money, taking her will unleash secrets and resentments guaranteed to pull this whole family apart just as dramatically as they’ve been reunited.
For a filmmaker who previously earned accolades for his harsh sense of realism and poignantly contemporary themes, Everybody Knows emerges as a surprisingly melodramatic and heightened affair. Don’t get me wrong, it still has plenty of painful scenes involving people who love each other hurting one another in the profound ways only those with a deep connection can. The film has the same themes of class struggle and bigotry that always populate Farhadi’s screenplays. However, these motifs emerge in the midst of a movie with deliberately heighted scenes of emotional explosion and suspenseful kidnap caper thrills. It’s an odd combo, but it works. Farhadi and his cast are having fun with the material and “fun” isn’t exactly an emotion one might assume was shared by the cast and crew of the filmmaker’s last few features. He’s probably due for a lark.
Despite all that, Everybody Knows remains a potent, thoughtful, and emotionally intense experience. The sunny and touristy setting is milked for beauty and irony. Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem get plenty of meaty monologues and explosive dialogue exchanges to dig into, carrying them all off with the mixture of movie star charisma and deep acting talent that the pair share. It’s an art film for viewers looking for less misery in their subtitled theatrical experience than they’ll feel in the world they walk out to after the credits roll.