By Preston Wilder
Families come with their own in-built tension. A family lives by its daily routine, happy or unhappy – but it lives for the ruptures and crises (and accomplishments too, to be sure), those turning points that define its identity. You might say it’s a stable unit perpetually on the brink of instability. That’s how it goes when Laura’s family meet for a wedding in a Spanish village, tension simmering behind the excitement. Laura’s teenage daughter Irene rides her bike recklessly, and seems about to crash into an oncoming car; will that be the rupture that defines the family (and indeed the movie)? Dad’s gotten old all of a sudden, remarks Laura (Penelope Cruz) to her sister, having not seen their father in a while. That, too, is a kind of tension.
Iranian director Asghar Farhadi is good with families (group dynamics in general, but especially families); most of the films which have made him well-known – especially A Separation and The Salesman – feature family units dealing with a crisis. The first half of Everybody Knows is madly exciting, a testament to Farhadi’s feel for the cut-and-thrust of people interacting who share a common past and know each other better than they should. There’s Laura, who lives in Argentina with her husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin). There’s Paco (Javier Bardem), who grew up with Laura – he was the son of a servant – and became her lover. There’s Laura’s father, old and embittered; her sister, the one getting married; there’s ebullient, reckless Irene, who takes up with Paco’s young nephew and cheekily rings the church bells in mid-wedding. The wall of the belltower is carved with initials from times gone by, including Paco and Laura’s. “Everybody knows” what they meant to each other.
That’s the other element, of course – the family history pressing down on the characters, the whispered village gossip which later plays a part in the plot. There’s a lot of information flying around, and the viewer feels a bit left behind – but it’s fun catching up, at least for a while. The pace is fast, the editing as busy as in a Hollywood movie; Farhadi is among the few festival filmmakers (the Dardenne Brothers also qualify) who deals in moral questions and speaks a language other than English yet remains accessible, embracing drama and even melodrama. A rupture occurs, of course, right in the middle of the wedding – and that scene is also exciting, with a storm raging and everyone borderline-drunk as they try to make sense of what’s happened. The whole world feels slightly off-balance.
Alas, the film goes flat in the second hour, ending up as the weakest work by this nonetheless superb writer-director. Farhadi’s strengths are those of a lawyer. He’s very good at giving people logical arguments to support their positions, and having his characters dissect a situation intelligently. His best work operates on a tension – that word again – between rational actors and an irrational problem that gets away from them (in his Iranian films, especially A Separation, the irrational side derives partly from living in a theocracy). The trouble here is the premise, which isn’t rich enough to sustain being picked apart for two hours.
The crisis affecting the family – we won’t spoil the details – recalls another Farhadi film, About Elly. It also recalls Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), and there’s even a reference to another Antonioni classic, the 1966 Blow-Up (when Paco goes through a slowed-down video looking for clues). All those films, however, used a premise that became open-ended and inscrutable (in a word, irrational) whereas this is more of a standard mystery/whodunit, with a crime being committed and having to be solved – except that Everybody Knows isn’t a genre movie, so it half-investigates the mystery while also getting bogged down in talky drama, family secrets coming out and so on. The result doesn’t satisfy on either level.
Everybody Knows starts off strong, peters out, then trundles towards anti-climax. It’s a shame, given how little world cinema we get on the big screen (the film is showing at the Pantheon in Nicosia, in Spanish with Greek subtitles); still, there are compensations, from Javier Bardem’s tight little smile when the family accuse Paco of being mercenary – he’s such a good actor – to a clutch of intriguing talking-points. Is Alejandro’s blind faith in God a reminder of Farhadi’s Iranian roots? Is Irene being implicitly punished for being a strong, independent young woman? One wonders for a while how the writer-director will fare in a foreign culture (despite having gone outside Iran once before, for The Past in 2013) – but, whatever its flaws, this busy, patchy, mostly entertaining drama ultimately shows that it doesn’t matter. Families, it seems, are just as dramatic everywhere.
DIRECTED BY Asghar Farhadi
STARRING Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darin
Spain/France/Italy 2018 132mins
In Spanish, with Greek subtitles