Between Paris-set “The Past” and the picturesque new Spanish drama “Everybody Knows,” Oscar-blessed Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s career is starting to look suspiciously like Woody Allen’s, as he jets off to make sunlit movies starring beautiful people in one European country after another. Globe-trotting is well and good, except one hopes the immensely talented auteur responsible for “A Separation” and “The Salesman,” whose freedom to address certain topics is tightly monitored at home, would use the opportunity of working abroad to be a bit more provocative.
Selected to open what many are preemptively (and therefore prematurely) declaring an off year for the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, Farhadi’s weakest film yet is still better than the vast majority of commercially made dramas in Spain, France or the United States. Like the best of his work, “Everybody Knows” takes a simple scenario — one that reunites smoldering “Jamón, Jamón” co-stars Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem as ex-lovers with unresolved history — and uses it to peel the onion of its characters’ private lives, uncovering all manner of secrets. Unfortunately, none of those revelations is especially surprising, though Farhadi makes them quite satisfying to discover all the same.
Appropriately enough for a film called “Everybody Knows,” the film’s biggest twist became known the instant it premiered in Cannes — and as such, complicates the idea of describing what follows without spoiling the experience. Suffice it to say, the film centers on a kidnapping. Laura (Cruz) and her kids have come back from Argentina to her native Spain to attend a family wedding, leaving her husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) behind to look for work.
At first, everything’s hugs and kisses as long-separated characters reunite. The chemistry seems especially strong between Laura and longtime family friend Paco (Bardem), a studly country winemaker with a three-day beard, rumpled clothes and an oh-so-nonchalant earring — and no wonder, since they carved their initials in a secret love nest many years ago, and time has done little to erase the evidence. Shot in the style of those corny pharmaceutical ads in which everybody’s running through fields and smiling (with no indication of what the drug actually does), these early scenes are upbeat but unengaging. Like thumbing through a stranger’s vacation photos, it gets old fast.
Woven into the overlong first act is the suggestion that Laura’s daughter Irene (Carla Campra) has a rebellious streak: She sneaks off to go joyriding with a local teen, and during the wedding, the two of them steal away to the church bell tower for some innocuous flirtation. And then, after passing out during the festivities that follow, she disappears, the only clue being a pile of newspaper clippings about a previous kidnapping.
Laura is understandably distraught, though audiences’ reactions are likely to run the gamut: Some will empathize quite deeply with her situation, forced to imagine how they would react if their own child were stolen; others will see this as a gratuitous opportunity for Cruz (who oversells her sunshine happiness in the opening scenes) to play the opposite extreme, stumbling and raccoon-eyed with grief. It’s an ambitious performance from Spain’s biggest international star, though there’s so much effort in her acting, we never quite buy her as a mother.
More troubling is the sense that, no matter how desperately Laura wants to recover her daughter, the film doesn’t seem particularly motivated to resolve that crime. In fact, the opposite may be true, since Irene’s kidnapping functions as a device by which to explore the dynamics between the remaining characters. The longer she stays missing, the deeper Farhadi can probe the fissures of their past.
In this respect, “Everybody Knows” feels like a somewhat lethargic rehash of “About Elly,” the unconventional missing-persons drama that put Farhadi on the world cinema map. That film, which earned him best director honors at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival, used a young woman’s vanishing as a kind of MacGuffin, redirecting the mystery from locating the lost Elly to exposing the hidden agendas of the various characters in her circle. Here, too, Farhadi proves more interested in the people affected by such a disappearance than he does in the victim.
As such, “Everybody Knows” is not a thriller so much as a parlor-room jigsaw puzzle, one in which Farhadi expects viewers to do their own detective work from among a spare number of subtly introduced clues. The culprits are shown only once, and even then, the scene feels like a concession — strangely out of place given how little the film cares about bringing them to justice. Yet, we can’t help speculating as to who’s responsible, and the case inevitably expands in our imagination as Laura realizes that it was surely someone close to the family who drugged and kidnapped her daughter.
Meanwhile, the real intrigue arises on the margins, as Farhadi explores the suppressed history between Paco and Laura. This is where he excels as a director, and though the film is slow to reach a place where its revelations can have an impact, once that starts to happen, it becomes compulsively absorbing. Farhadi got his start as a playwright, and though “Everybody Knows” opens things up to include villas, vineyards, bustling plazas, and country roads, the too-neatly scripted interpersonal exchanges feel more theatrical than ever, selectively revealing information as suits his purposes.
Cruz may have the showier role, but the men — Bardem and Darín both — wind up baring their souls in astonishing ways. In Paco’s case, he becomes so invested in retrieving his ex-girlfriend’s daughter that he seems willing to sacrifice his entire fortune to pay the ransom, much to the consternation of his wife (Bárbara Lennie). Alejandro has a different philosophy, trusting in God to deliver them from the situation — a response many read as indifferent until the terrific scene in which he reveals how his God interceded once before at a key moment in his life.
Watching the three actors play off one another is a pleasure, especially since Farhadi spares us the wallowing despondency of Bardem’s next-most-nuanced performance, in 2010 Cannes downer “Biutiful” (for which he won the festival’s best actor prize). And unlike last year’s “Loveless,” the mystery eventually resolves itself — even though many questions remain.
Think of these as the things nobody knows about “Everybody Knows”: Why were Laura and Paco raised under the same roof as kids? Is Irene related to the boy she likes? And would supplying a diagram of the film’s sprawling family tree have been too much to ask? A bit of lingering mystery can be a good thing, but this film lacks the precision — or ambition — of Farhadi’s earlier work. Many have wondered why Farhadi hasn’t directed a film yet in English, and no doubt such a destination is in his world-traveling future. Let’s hope he pushes himself farther when that time comes.
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