For a filmmaker, at least from a traditionally American perspective, it’s easy to presume how one’s career might pan out. They can shake things up, but nothing ever really is new, is it? It’s simply framing something that is done less often as something unique. When it comes to the films of Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, the audience gets something a bit different. First off, and perhaps most impressively, Farhadi’s films are all over the place, literally. You get to go somewhere different in the world with each of his films. Whether he’s sticking close to home in Iran with A Separation or The Salesman (both of which won him the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in their respective years), hashing it out in France with The Past, or going to the Spanish countryside in Everybody Knows, Farhadi has an organic grasp on world cultures in a way that no other filmmaker working today seems to have. Farhadi also grips relationships by the neck and squeezes his characters for all their worth without once ever having to levy a drop of blood on screen. Farhadi’s films have never been flashy with violence or sex (in fact, Everybody Knows is his first R-rated film, if only for using the word “fuck” more than twice), but leave bruises from thematic and dialogical themes that bring every facet of human emotion to the forefront, and it’s emotion that makes Everybody Knows so damn enjoyable.
Laura (Penélope Cruz) is an Spanish woman living in Argentina with her husband, Alejandro (Ricardo Darín), and two children, Irene (Carla Campra) and Diego (Iván Chavero). Visiting her hometown outside of Madrid with her children for her sister’s wedding, Laura meets up with an old friend and family benefactor, Paco (Javier Bardem), and they hit it off before the wedding. After the wedding, during the reception, everyone celebrates in a drunken haze before Laura realizes that Irene is missing from her bedroom. What starts as an annoyed hunt for her rebellious daughter around the house soon turns into a countryside game of cat-and-mouse as the family searches for Irene and bargains with the mysterious messengers claiming to have taken her.
Everybody Knows doesn’t play out in the normal “kidnapping film” fashion. It’s talky, like every other Farhadi film, but that actually works in its favor quite a bit throughout the film. Farhadi, even when writing into a language different from his own, has an eloquence in his words that frames each line of dialogue around characters with a question mark rather than an exclamation point. Despite its slow nature, you never get ahead of the film in any way, leaving you in the moment, trying to figure out the mystery with the characters, as opposed to trying to cut the film off at the pass and guess the twist before the film reveals it. Farhadi is far too deliberate of a filmmaker to fashion Everybody Knows in such a cheap way and delivers each individual blow right as you’re meant to feel it. It’s actually quite thrilling to watch a film with such little spectacle wrangle you in such a way.
Cruz is the best she’s been in years as Laura, a truly broken soul fueled only by the possibility that she might one day see her daughter again. Cruz’s performance is something of melodramatic gold: completely out there, but entirely grounding. It’s something that feels like a lot, but putting it into perspective, feels perfectly in place for the film. Cruz’s dramatic range is something that often feels like it gets put on the backburner because most mainstream media just wants to use her as the fiery Spanish sexpot, but Farhadi knows just how powerful of an actress Cruz is and lets her loose on a role that suits her in that way. Bardem’s Paco definitely keeps his head more squarely on his shoulders looking for Irene than Laura does, which anchors him generally as the voice of reason in the film. It makes perfect sense, even if it doesn’t lead to as many Earth-shattering scenes of emotion on Bardem’s part, with the exception of the final act of the film, which cuts everyone down to size a good deal.
Visually, there’s always something with Farhadi’s work that is so beautifully comforting, even when the film’s plot doesn’t call for comfort being an option. He paints his films with such a touching familiarity that makes the mundane aspects of the film and its story feel intertwined into the viewer’s being. About 15 minutes in, you began to wonder if you are actually a Spanish man who grew up in this town with Laura. The power of foreign language film is in its ability to transport a viewer, but Farhadi does it in such a different way that you often forget that you’re watching something in a different language, from a different culture, and that you’re simply always where you need to be.
Everybody Knows does overstay its welcome just a tad, though. At 132 minutes, it’s not a terribly long film, but when the third act hits, the sense of urgency that pervaded the first 100 minutes feels to have been lost in a mixture of melodramas that don’t always mesh as well between scenes. It could have about 20 minutes shaved off of the piece and it still would’ve felt fine, if not a bit leaner and meaner.
But in a way, it’s Everybody Knows’s lack of meanness that makes it so damn watchable. It’s a dark drama about a minor’s kidnapping, and yet it has moments of levity and an odd sense of comfort that brings the film back down to scale. It’s not cruel, violent, or explicit in any way, and how Farhadi weaves the relationships between characters to create a good old fashioned missing person mystery out of a romantic homecoming drama is something to behold. It may not be as subtly devastating as some of Farhadi’s other work, if only for the more obvious stakes at hand here, but there’s still a dialogue-heavy, expertly crafted story at the heart of this beautiful film.
In select theaters February 8th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.