Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem put in excellent performances in this purposefully familiar drama from A Separation director Asghar Farhadi.
When a filmmaker keeps chiselling away at the same niche, they're called repetitive. When they swap what they know for something new, they're accused of straying past their limits. The supposed ideal seems to sit somewhere in the middle, with directors expected to remain unwaveringly reliable while also serving up constant surprises — even if that very concept defies basic human nature. So what's an acclaimed auteur to do when he appears to be settling into a well-worn groove, as his underwhelming last picture made plain? In Asghar Farhadi's case, he explores the contradiction of trying to be the same yet different, baking the notion into his latest release.
With the Spanish-language Everybody Knows, one truth is immediately evident: you can take the Oscar-winner out of his native Iran, but you can't take the familiarity out of his work. The man behind About Elly, A Separation, The Past and The Salesman delights in delving into disharmony in close quarters — into relationships, friendships and family situations where what's left unspoken is as important as what's said, and where complication reigns supreme. The scenarios, characters and narratives vary, and occasionally the countries that his films are set in do as well, however the writer-director's deep dive into complex interactions continues. All of the above proves accurate in this recognisable domestic drama, which is dressed up as a kidnap thriller while shot in sunny hues and scenic locales. If that last sentence seems like a clash of contrasts, that's partly the point, with Everybody Knows examining the foolishness of simultaneously wanting things to change and hoping they remain exactly as they always were.
Returning to her Spanish village after establishing a life in Argentina, Laura's (Penélope Cruz) homecoming should be a happy one. She's back for her younger sister Ana's (Inma Cuesta) nuptials, she has her teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra) and adolescent son Diego (Ivan Chavero) in tow, and everyone from her elderly father Antonio (Ramon Barea) to her ex-lover Paco (Javier Bardem) is delighted by her presence. Of course, no one could've anticipated that Irene would disappear during the lively wedding reception, or that a significant ransom demand would set everyone on edge. When Laura's husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin) belatedly arrives, he steps into a tempest of flaring tempers and fraying emotions as the close-knit group endeavours to work through their darkest hour.
With a name like Everybody Knows, Farhadi's eighth film was always going to hinge upon twists and secrets — of the type that, as the title makes plain, aren't all that twisty and secret at all. For viewers of the director's past work, the minutiae borders on routine, as characters argue about past dalliances, long-held grievances, whispered rumours and deep-seated jealousies, plus a contentious land deal that helped Paco become a successful winemaker. But with Laura's desperation growing, Paco committing to assist however he can, and Alejandro becoming quietly envious of their previous relationship, something else fascinates. In thoughtful and insightful fashion, the movie's main players are all caught between a past they've painted in rosy colours, a present that's fraught with pain, and an idealised future that may never eventuate. Pondering the ripples caused by previous deeds has become a Farhadi trademark, as has upsetting a comfortable vision of life with a challenging alternative, yet the turmoil is both smartly and aptly handled in Everybody Knows.
Still, while there's substance behind Farhadi's story and themes, not to mention purpose behind his usual flourishes, Everybody Knows is rarely more than a striving but standard entry on his resume. What helps lift the movie considerably is another of the filmmaker's regular touches, with Farhadi particularly accomplished at wringing excellent performances out of his actors. In roles written specifically for them, Cruz and Bardem show why they've become the English-language film world's go-to Spanish stars, throwing up surprises in their multi-faceted portrayals long after the narrative has stopped doing so. Elsewhere, the soulful Darin demonstrates why he belongs in their company, and there's no false moves among the rest of the cast either. Alas, even with such stellar assistance and intentions, Farhadi often feels as if he's caught between two impulses — between simply doing what he's always done, and giving his fondness for familiarity extra weight and meaning.
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