Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben)

Spain (2018) Dir. Asghar Farhadi

“Everybody” is a word that, of late, has been overused by many people trying to justify their own opinions, becoming more of a nebulous exaggeration than a useful pronoun. Usually the problem is when everybody does know that is when dramas arise, especially in a family situation.

Laura (Penélope Cruz), returns to her native Spain for the wedding of her younger sister Ana (Inma Cuesta), with her children Irene (Carla Campra) and Diego (Ivan Chavero), whilst husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) stays in Argentina to look for work. During the wedding, teenage Irene acts up with local boys, drinking, smoking, and joyriding before feeling ill from her exploits and is put to bed.

When a power cable is cut denying electricity to the house, Laura checks on Irene only to find she is missing, with a pile of newspaper cuttings about a prior child abduction left on her bed. Laura then gets a text message saying Irene is being held and will be killed if the police are called. Old fried Paco (Javier Bardem) leads the search for Irene but dark secrets are exposed in the process.

Two-time Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi has carved out a nice little niche for himself in domestic dramas with strong social and cultural themes, which in recent years has seen him leave the tense oppression of his native Iran and make a couple of stops in Europe. In 2013, Farhadi took a trip to France for The Past and for Everybody Knows, he travels to Spain with two of its finest acting exports as support.

Farhadi has a unique gift in being able to capture the cultural essence of the country his is working in, so it doesn’t feel like a noted director making the same kind of film in another location, it feels like a Spanish film or a French film. This osmotic assimilation to his surroundings goes a long way to make Farhadi’s non-Iranian excursions enriching in their own way for the audience presumably as much as the cast.

Spanish families appear to be typically European in that they are large and tight knit, and with the busy welcoming party to greet Laura and kids upon arriving in her erstwhile home village, this one is no different. Aside from the bride to be, there is Laura’s older sister Marianne (Elvira Mínguez), her husband Fernando (Eduard Fernández), their daughter Rocío (Sara Sálamo), and Laura’s elderly father Antonio (Ramón Barea).

Paco and his wife Bea (Bárbara Lennie) now own the land that once belonged to Antonio, which he gave to Laura who sold it to Paco for peanuts so she could leave Spain and move to Argentina with Alejandro. Now largely infirm, Antonio also recently made a huge donation to the local church to repair it ahead of the wedding, which has made him a local hero.

None of this is initially important as the wedding is the sole focus for everyone, but after Laura receives a ransom demand of 300,000 Euros for Irene’s release, which neither she nor her family have, it becomes a thorny issue, opening the floodgates for some loose accusations and ill will to surface. The hardest part for Laura is not calling the police, her decision influenced by the earlier abduction where the mother made that mistake.

On the advice of a retired police officer friend of Paco’s, Jorge (José Ángel Egido), Paco makes noises about selling his share of the land to his partner to give the impression to the kidnappers the money is being raised, hoping this ruse will buy them some time as they try to track them down. However, all this does is unearth some old resentments and force out some hidden truths to complicate the matter further, doing asthmatic Irene no favours as she becomes ill whilst held captive.

As a spiralling drama, the plot is quietly gripping, if conventional in some of the routes it ends up taking, especially in the revelation department, where one can see them coming before a word is spoken. It’s fortunate the top-notch cast makes it work, otherwise in lesser hands this would be seen as retreading tired clichés. Before we get to this point however, Farhadi teases us with juicy speculation regarding the culprit and their motives to keep the options wide open.

Bankrupt, former alcoholic Alejandro is an early suspect due to his absence though this is dispelled rather quickly. Alejandro is a pious man, frustrating Laura with his belief God will being Irene back to them. Then there is the feud over the land – could they actually be targeting Paco instead? Or, as Laura suspects, is this payback by Paco for her leaving him for Alejandro all those years ago?

There really is a lot to digest so don’t let the lugubrious pacing fool you, once it gets going Farhadi wrings every drop of emotion out this gnarly, complex situation, creating tension of seemingly mundane issues as usual. With three top tier leads in Cruz, Bardem, and Darin and a strong support cast, we are never less than captivated.

Yet there is something missing beyond the uncomfortable human drama that Farhadi has made his own. For this writer, I believe it is the fact that Farhadi works best when he has something to challenge which he plenty of in his native Iran. With this film made and set in Spain there is nothing for Farhadi to oppose, his usual trenchant commentary and social critique is not needed and noticeably absent from the narrative.

Everybody Knows Farhadi has yet to make a bad film (sorry!) and whilst this is a superb and taut emotional drama, handsomely shot and tightly scripted, at least until the brisk ending, it’s his safest and most accessible outing yet. This may not be a bad thing but for someone with a reputation for getting under the skin of his subjects, this may feel like an underwhelming experience for long time Farhadi fans.