Late in Asghar Farhadi’s new maze-like film Everybody Knows (Todos lo Saben), Javier Bardem’s Paco stares at the sky, eviscerating the blue surface with his heavy, baggy eyes. He takes a break from looking for his childhood friend Irene (Carla Campra) who was kidnapped and held for ransom. In this snapshot, both the pain and blissfulness that comes from the search to free oneself from suffering is displayed as Paco evokes an endless aura of emotions and worlds. Likewise, in this shot, the film’s director displays his own penchant for endless emotions and worlds, as Farhadi, the next Iranian in line for the country’s filmmaking crown, depicts a world far and away from his native borders south of the Caspian Sea. In making a Spanish language film this seamless and minimally touristy, Farhadi has performed a heroic feat, made more impressive by the fact that Bardem has validated the Spanish authenticity of the film, while co-star Penélope Cruz has praised the filmmaker’s willingness to explore the humanity behind his characters. Indeed Farhadi is modern cinema’s poetic surgeon, using his gift to cut through the complex pasts of his characters and weave them together in a powerful narrative. However, Farhadi gets all tied up in this film, as an abundance of non-sequiturs and red herrings threaten to disturb the tension of the central kidnapping search and the events that follow.
Everybody Knows begins with Cruz’s Laura, who is driving to a small town just outside Madrid with her children (one of whom is the rebellious troublemaker Irene) and her soon-to-be married sister, Ana (Inma Cuesta). The family is without the father-husband, a wealthy Argentinian man named Alejandro (Ricardo Darin). When everyone arrives in town, Paco first appears — he owns the property and is married to Bea (Barbara Lennie). Through the opening scenes, it is revealed that Paco and Laura were deeply in love at one point in their young lives (though the break up is never explicitly explained). As they attempt to initially suppress any discussion of the past while Laura is in town (it is implied they haven’t seen each other for years), the town only pays more attention to their interactions, for “everybody knows.”
On the night of the wedding, a raucous party takes place at the hotel. A drunk Irene stumbles upstairs to her room and suddenly disappears. Laura discovers an empty bed with newspaper clippings of a local girl who was kidnapped several years ago. Her fate: death.
Laura immediately receives a text message with an ultimatum: either give the kidnappers 300,000 euros or Irene dies (if they go to the police, Irene will die as well). This jumpstarts the plot, with Paco leading the charge on finding the kidnappers: many clues point to the culprit being part of the family. Through various informal investigations, characters will be put through the ringer, relationships will be tested and the integrity of everyone will be questioned.
Despite the past of Laura and Paco looming in the background, Everybody Knows is thankfully not about a romantic rekindling. Instead, the central kidnapping is used as a way for viewers to see the characters reveal their true selves to each other. However, the film is too Agatha Christie-like for its own good, and the kidnapping — in conjunction to events around it — is clumsily handled.
Farhadi’s films have had central events which move the plot — they have ranged from sexual assault (The Salesman) to violent activity (A Separation) to a disappearance of a person (About Elly). In his films, characters try to find either the perpetrator or the victim; they are desperate for truth — and in their search for truth, deep layers of their personality are shown. Farhadi’s work is never really about the central event, which is why his films leans more towards drama than mystery, and in Everybody Knows, the director has too many red herrings and convenient subplots which envelope the audience more in the kidnapping investigation than the internal conflicts of the characters. This is fine, but if the film is to double as a slight character study and a mystery, then the predictable twists and the weak kidnapper reveal hurt the film as a whodunit.
This leaves me to believe that Farhadi intended to create a character study (as he always does), but for the first time in his career, the writing got away from him and he ended up with a soap opera-like family drama (at best) and a poorly devised mystery (at worst).
However, the film’s performances are memorable and heartfelt. Bardem as Paco is a classic Farhadi male hero, who feels like it is his duty to protect a damsel in distress. In taking responsibility to save the damsel, his masculinity is deconstructed. As he did in The Salesman, Farhadi allows viewers to evaluate issues of male pride and the savior complex in Everybody Knows, as characters such as Ricardo, who is revealed to be a jobless alcoholic, questions his own role as an effective “man of the family.” Lennie is excellent as Bea, as she compellingly channels the character’s conflict between supporting her husband’s fight for justice and worrying about how far he can go (Paco considers selling the land to pay the kidnappers).
Though it’s not one of Farhadi’s best films, Everybody Knows is still an effective, impactful thriller. Sure, it’s heightened and unbelievable, but there is something inherently enjoyable, and even relatable, about seeing characters struggle through family issues and issues of the past, with the latter being a constant motif throughout Farhadi’s filmography. Call it heavy melodrama, but it is still drama.
Muhammad Muzammal is a freelance film critic/artist based in Manhattan/Long Island. His interests include Italian Neo-realism, Indian Parallel Cinema and film theory, specifically discourse on affect images and spatial-architectural theory. His digital artwork and photography can be found on Instagram: muha_muza.