The last time Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz came together for a Spanish story conceived and shot by a foreign director it was for Woody Allen’s light, frothy ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’. Now they’re back at it, minus the campy sexual fireworks, for ‘Everybody Knows’, a brooding, talky family saga by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, twice winner of the foreign-film Oscar for ‘A Separation’ and ‘The Salesman’.
It’s a homecoming celebration as Cruz’s Laura returns from Buenos Aires to rural Spain with her two kids to celebrate her younger sister’s wedding. Laura has left her older businessman husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) back home and enjoys re-connecting with old childhood flame Paco (Bardem), while her teen daughter Irene (Carla Campra) throws herself into a romance, buzzing about on a moped and knocking back the local wine.
It’s all one big party – until it isn’t. On the night of the wedding, Irene vanishes, with newspaper cuttings alluding to an earlier kidnapping left on her bed. For Farhadi, it’s less a chance to flex his Agatha Christie muscles (although this is superficially a whodunnit and a who’s-got-her) and more the opportunity to turn a fractured family and community inside out. Tensions and resentments ooze from the cracks, to do with money, status, old frustrations and new revelations. The unsure modern world of migrant workers and upstart businessmen seems to be turning on the old certainties of the land. Clouds descend on the film’s bright palette. What was first a fun snapshot of a busy family becomes more of a head-scratcher: who’s who in this uneasy puzzle? And what are they each really thinking and doing?
There are plenty of ideas and questions to chew on. But this is less of a concise drama than Farhadi’s best and there are melodramatic moments (Bardem in the rain! Cruz sobbing!) that rankle in a script which never fully coheres into an enlightening mystery. If you compare it to Farhadi’s earlier story of a disappeared woman, ‘About Elly’, it falls short. It’s also hard to shake the feeling that this disappearance is anything more than a device, making it tough to care properly about either the lost girl or her grieving relatives – despite strong performances from the ensemble cast. As Farhadi casts his roving, distracted eye over this unhappy community, sharing his story in a choppy, documentary style, it ends up feeling like a curiously detached exercise, more academic than wholly satisfying.