Film Review: Everybody Knows (Spain, 2018) is an inferior, yet effective entry from director Asghar Farhadi

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has made some of most critically acclaimed dramas in the 21st Century. Garnering awards from many festivals, including winning two Oscars for Best Foreign Film, it is a testament to Farhadi’s impeccable storytelling about the social, gender and class differences in modern Iran as well as his assured hand in telling human interest stories that are thematically powerful and morally ambiguous; that he is able to earn such a reputation.

His latest film, Everybody Knows, is Farhadi’s first film done entirely in a different language. Working with a plethora of Spanish talent and a different cultural perspective, it marks a bit of a change of pace for Farhadi. Will Everybody Knows live up to the rest of Farhadi’s acclaimed filmmography?

Set in modern Madrid, the film follows Laura (Penelope Cruz), a Spanish woman living in Buenos Aires, who returns with her children to her hometown outside Madrid for her sister’s (Ana, played by Inma Cuesta) wedding, leaving behind her husband, Alejandro (Ricardo Darin), who is busy with work. But Laura has brought their two children: a teen daughter, Irene (Carla Campra), and younger son Diego, (Ivan Chavero).

During the wedding reception, a secret is spread between people, which is insisted because “everybody knows”. Laura broke the heart of Paco (Javier Bardem) when she married Alejandro and moved away. Paco remained in the village, bought land for his vineyards from Laura’s father (Ramón Barea), married a quiet schoolteacher (Barbara Lennie), and quietly made a great living for himself and his family. The wedding itself goes very well but the joyous reunion takes an abrupt and tragic turn, when Laura’s older daughter Irene gets kidnapped, gradually revealing a web of dark secrets that will break the family apart.

Does Everybody Knows stand up to Farhadi’s filmmography, including About Elly, A Separation, The Past and The Salesman? While Everybody Knows is a drama that does stand on its own two feet, in comparison to the rest of Farhadi’s films, it feels like a bit of a misstep.

Let’s begin with the positives. The acting, for the most part, is fantastic — as the cast all manage to portray their characters honestly. Although the performances may be a bit melodramatic in comparison to performances in Farhadi’s native films (most likely due to cultural differences), but thanks to Farhadi’s direction, never do they resort to histrionics or become self-conscious in their acting methods.

The standouts include Penelope Cruz, who is convincing (if a bit too melodramatic at times) as the increasingly distraught and desperate mother Laura, as she is willing to do anything to get her daughter back; Javier Bardem is great as the charismatic Paco, who may still harbour feelings for Laura; Ricardo Darin is at his understated best (if a bit lost due to the scriptwriting) as Laura’s husband who has more than a few secrets kept hidden in expense for his pride and Barbara Lennie is very good as Paco’s wife Bea, who is more than agitated due to her husband’s involvement in his support of Laura in the time of the kidnapping.

Farhadi’s handling of the storytelling is still methodical as ever, as he handles the first act very well by laying out the relationships, the plot complications and the foreshadowing with remarkable efficiency. But when the film reaches its second act, the film hits a couple of snags that prevent it from becoming a stellar entry in Farhadi’s filmmography.

The plot itself becomes very familiar to the point that becomes basically a spiritual riff to Farhadi’s prior film About Elly, which is about the title character’s unexplained disappearance during a beach holiday that creates tension and inspires many accusations among a group of friends who barely even knew her.

Much like About Elly, the pacing is quite leisurely and is effective in portraying the obliviousness and cluelessness of the characters. But in the case of Everybody Knows, the pacing hurts the film, making the lack of urgency during a ransom plot feel quite unbelievable as well as making the hard-earned drama drag throughout its second act. There is also a subplot involving unfinished business regarding how Paco obtained the land for his vineyards, but it is only peripheral background information that could’ve been easily trimmed down to improve the pacing.

That is until it hits its third act, where the actions of the characters and revelations kick in and they all make their impact quite well, particularly in the case of what Laura does, in the expense of Paco. The motives of the kidnappers also hits its mark and shows how desperation and family devotion collide, leading to a fittingly open-ended and morally ambiguous conclusion that is a trademark for Farhadi’s films.

Overall, Everybody Knows is an average film from Asghar Farhadi due to some narrative missteps and some blips in the acting department and narrative familiarity, but the overall great performances, Farhadi’s assured storytelling and its thematic power still proves that average Farhadi beats most filmmakers at their A-game.

THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Everybody Knows hits cinemas on 7th March 2019

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