Asghar Farhadi is surely one of his generation’s greatest dramaturgists, so the release of a new film of his is invariably cause for excitement. Even if Everybody Knows – a modern melodrama set in Spain, only his second film shot outside Iran – attracted a muted response at its Cannes premiere last year, Farhadi is not a man known for mediocrity.
That reputation remains unblemished with this carefully-crafted tale of familial resentment, barely-buried secrets and frayed loyalties. Is it on par with his masterful mid-career trio of Fireworks Wednesday, About Elly and the oft-celebrated A Separation? Perhaps not. Certainly, it retreads ground tracked in those films, whether it’s the inciting incident of a disappearing young woman – the events of Everybody Knows are prompted by the apparent kidnapping of a teenage girl – or an ambiguous tragedy that looms and eventually uncovers long-seeded acrimony.
Ah, but Farhadi’s talent lies not in originality, per se, but his ability to take a melodramatic, even programmatic narrative, and imbue it with real human emotion. That’s in large part to how he works with his actors, of course. Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem are mega-stars, of course. Here they’re respectively playing Laura, a woman returning to her Spanish hometown after moving to Argentina, and Paco, her childhood lover turned successful winemaker. They’re allowed to disappear into these humble roles, neither underplaying nor overplaying their characters but simply existing within the rich – and often fraught – histories Farhadi has sketched for them.
Perhaps the clumsiest element of the film is its title, which appears twice in dialogue. Yes, this is a story of secrets that aren’t really secrets, but it’s primarily of film of how new challenges – in this case, the disappearance of Laura’s daughter, Irene (Carla Campra) – tear open old conflicts. When Laura struggles to pay the ransom demanded of her for her daughter’s return, the circumstances in which Paco obtained the land upon which his grapevines grow are re-examined. Was it a gesture of benevolence on Paco’s part, to buy it from her with all the money he had before Laura absconded to Argentina with her new husband (Ricardo Darín)? Or was he manipulating the circumstances by securing an unfair price, cheating the land out from under her?
These questions don’t have clear answers, but that’s not really the point. As he has throughout his filmography, Farhadi is more interested in examining such conflict, holding it carefully to the light and watching as new facets gleam. He seeds twists throughout his story, but his characters are inquisitive and intelligent enough to begin to understand them before they know them, meaning that each revelation in the tale feels inevitable rather than a cheap shock.
Everybody Knows is imperfect, admittedly. Like The Salesman, its runtime is perhaps a smidgeon too long – a necessary correction after the overburdened The Past (Farhadi’s weakest film since his first). And its cursorily-considered religious themes – shouldered entirely by Darín’s character, who turned from alcoholism to God – feel clumsy in comparison to the delicate nuance with which he addressed similar issues in A Separation. Perhaps the cultural context is to blame, here; the questions posed by the screenplay aren’t slight, but have been over-wrought in Western culture’s examination of Christianity’s paradoxes.
These imperfections might classify Everybody Knows as lesser Farhadi, but lesser Farhadi is nonetheless far greater than many filmmakers’ best.