Everybody Knows

Penelope Cruz and Xavier Bardem are a magical real-life couple and this is their fifth cinematic pairing. And it’s an intriguing collaboration with Iranian film director Asghar Farhadi, best-known for his harrowing  A Separation, made in 2011 and just before I started reviewing. Everybody Knowsopened the Cannes film festival and is one of the select few not to have been in either English of French. So quite a pedigree.

The film opens joyfully with Laura (Cruz) and her two children 16-year-old Irene (Carla Campra) and 10-year-old Diego (Ivan Chavero) arriving home to Spain for her sister’s wedding. There are emotional reunions in what is obviously a poor village, where her sister and brother-in-law are struggling with their hotel, and dour locals casting a beady eye over the impending revelries.

As the chaotic wedding unfolds there is a building sense of tension. Irene is a handful and hijacks a youthful admirer’s scooter for a daredevil ride, almost killing them both in the process; during the wedding she lures her beau up to the bell tower where she learns that the initials carved into the wall are those of her mother and her former lover, now family friend, Paco (Bardem). With youthful exuberance she swings off the bell-rope and disrupts the service, where the priest is exhorting Laura to continue the work her rich husband began in rebuilding the church. Apparently he never misses in trick in his quest for cash. Everybody knows all these things.

So far so good, but at the wedding party, where the wine flows and the flamenco music gets everyone on their feet in frenzied dancing, poor little Diego is lost amidst the feet of the grown-ups. Is he going to be the victim?

Irene is exhausted from jet-lag and has to be carried off to bed; suddenly there is a power cut, and later Laura returns to find her gone and a sheaf of newspaper cuttings referring to an earlier kidnapping left on her empty bed. The opening sequence of someone with surgical gloves slicing through paper pings back into memory. This is no ordinary disappearance or practical joke. A text message demanding Euros 300,000 in ransom reconfirms this suspicion and warns Laura off going to the police, else Irene will be killed.

So it’s Paco to the rescue. He is now married to the beautiful Bea (Barbara Lennie) and together they own a share in a vineyard, bought from land sold by Laura when she left for Argentina.  Bea is involved with local young offenders, who have been allowed to film the wedding, and on whom suspicion initially falls. Anger adds to her indignation as Paco is drawn into the net cast by his former lover’s desperation. Finding Irene becomes the focus of the plot, but there are few leads so the way ahead is tortuous.

As is the film to an extent. Don’t get me wrong: the cinematography by Jose Luis Alcaine, a veteran of many Almovadar films (and you can tell) is stunning; Cruz and Bardem are convincing in their respective personas; the ensemble of actors portraying the family, from drunken old Dad, Antonio (Ramon Barea) who still harbours a grudge that Laura sold the land too cheap, to the three sisters and brother-in-law, are all so natural. Farhadi is a master at portraying family tensions and the bitterness that can divide communities, all of which erupt in the search to find the kidnappers. The central themes of secrets and lies and understanding the present from the past are all his trademarks.

But at 133 minutes, the film is too long, and the so-called secret which is revealed 2/3 of the way through is obvious from the start, thence the apt title ‘everybody knows’ – everybody, that is, apart from one person, which in retrospect is quite absurd. The film therefore becomes a melodramatic thriller rather than sticking to Farhadi’s credentials in social commentary. Perhaps in straying out of his native Iran he has become influenced by the demands of western cinema.

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