Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi has given us some of the most simple, most beautiful movies of recent vintage: 2017’s The Salesman, 2013’s The Past, 2011’s A Separation. His are movies swelling with deep humanity, delicately wrought portraits of broken families struggling to right themselves in which not much actually happens except our immersion into the lives of others. These are not plot-driven movies but tenderly gripping exercises in coming to the realization that all families, all of us as individuals, are broken in our own ways, that there is no such thing as an unbroken human being, and that maybe we should just find a better word to describe ourselves and our families and our lives: works in progress, maybe?
Initially, Farhadi’s latest, Everybody Knows, his first Spanish-language film, appears on track to be much the same sort of experience. Laura (Penélope Cruz) has just returned home to her small Spanish village — she’s been living in Buenos Aires for many years — for her sister’s wedding. Her husband hasn’t come with them — work obligations have kept him home — but her two children, teen Irene (Carla Campra) and gradeschooler Diego (Iván Chavero), are having a blast with their cousins, and Laura is joyously catching up with her raucous extended family. That extended family and all the intimate family friends seem to include almost the whole village, in fact, including local winemaker Paco (Javier Bardem) and his wife, Bea (Bárbara Lennie).
It’s a bit tricky keeping track of who is who and who’s related to whom and how everyone is connected, but it doesn’t matter. That’s kind of the point, that the deep, lifelong interconnections between all these people make them inseparable, reliant on one another for favors big and small in unquestioning ways. Farhadi’s exquisite, incisive talent for plunging us into a flow of affection and bickering and intricate, inextricable relationships seems to be in fine form. If the wedding sequence doesn’t make you wish you were there partying with all these people, you might be dead inside.
But from there — the wedding is early on in the film — Everybody takes a turn that it will never recover from. Farhadi has indulged in more plot this time around than he has before, but he flounders with it, as if he doesn’t know quite what to do with this new situation, as if he somehow blindsided and confounded himself with it. Something transpires at the wedding — I shan’t spoil! — that morphs the film into a mystery. It’s the stuff of a melodramatic thriller, a riddle to be urgently solved and an immediate trauma to be overcome... and as he attempts to meld this sudden eruption of potboiler with his usual slow-burn humanistic drama, there is little space for either cinematic impulse to be satisfied.
The aftermath of the event at the wedding is the jumping-off point for profound cracks to start showing in the relationships of the people all around Laura, as family secrets bubble up to the surface and long-held resentments threaten to fracture the previous status quo. Yet there’s little surprising or emotionally revelatory about anything we learn, and, indeed, the title of the film refers to the fact that there are few secrets among such a tight-knit group of people in such a small community. That’s a strangely anticlimactic stand, emotionally, for Farhadi to take, and it works against the mystery narrative as well, particularly when the resolution of it would appear to demand that there are secrets — open secrets — among these people that we are not made privy too. The explanation about what has been going on seems to leap out from nowhere; it could have been something entirely different in a “Colonel Mustard in the library with a candlestick” sort of way, determined by a draw of random cards, not anything that has sprung from anything we’ve seen transpire.
It’s so disappointing to see a filmmaker like Farhadi, who has been so powerfully grounded in authentic human feeling and experience in his drama before, toy with his characters the way he does here. He leaves us hanging, leaves us not feeling like we’ve lived a life with those on the screen but scrambling for a connection to them at all. His mystery undermines the humanity, and his humanity undermines the mystery. It’s a sad place for us to be.
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