After a shift in setting to Spain for Everybody Knows, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi squanders a brilliantly tense kidnapping drama in an attempt to provide social commentary.By Christos Tsiolkas.
In Everybody Knows, the new Spanish-language film by Asghar Farhadi, the Castilian light seems to have innervated him as a director. Farhadi is best known for the Iranian films A Separation and The Salesman, both of which were intricately structured chamber pieces where he adroitly choreographed his actors within cramped interior spaces. Even in his earlier film, About Elly, which concerns a tragedy that occurs on a holiday resort on the Caspian Sea, the colour palette and lighting is sombre, autumnal, as if the repressive social, class and religious restrictions of the Iranian state have affected the natural world itself.
But in his new film the light is sensual, luminous. There is a thrilling scene where two teenagers on a bike recklessly speed through a landscape of golden fields and the film’s bold centrepiece is a long extended sequence where we as viewers are thrust into the middle of a family’s exuberant wedding celebrations: they are the most joyous scenes in all of Farhadi’s oeuvre.
Everybody Knows is not the first film Farhadi has made in Europe. But 2013’s The Past, filmed in Paris, was centred on an immigrant Iranian family and that film, too, was largely set in domestic interiors. Farhadi has an astonishing knack for creating populous but not overwhelming worlds, for persuading us immediately of deep familial and emotional bonds. Characters who might only appear in a handful of scenes have a vivid presence. It is clear that his filmmaking craft is firmly committed to the collaborations possible between actors and director. No wonder actors are keen to work with him. This new film stars Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, but they work diligently and seemingly without ego as part of an ensemble of talented performers. Farhadi is attentive to how family members interact and spar with one another, of how much can be understood in the ease with which sisters embrace each other, or what can be communicated about a marriage by a wife absent-mindedly passing her husband a half-finished cigarette. Within minutes of the film beginning I was no longer conscious of Cruz as a star and a personality; I was convinced of her as Laura, sister and mother.
Laura, who now lives in Argentina, has returned to Spain with her two children to attend the wedding of her sister in a village outside Madrid. Her husband, Alejandro (Ricardo Darín), has remained behind for work. In Farhadi’s previous films, the fact that there are tensions within families or friendship circles is made clear almost from the very beginning. But in its first act, Everybody Knows maintains a cheerful tone. There are seeds planted of secrets that may propel the narrative later in the film. We glean, for example, that as a younger woman, Laura was in love with Paco (Bardem), who now manages a winery with his wife, Bea, played by Bárbara Lennie. We also receive intimations of the tensions between landowners and workers on Paco’s estate and we sense the rural suspicion of the immigrant labourers. Unlike The Past, however, where French society was largely hermetically sealed off from the family drama unfolding, we sense Farhadi’s rapturous delight in the preparations, the ceremony and celebrations of the wedding. He’s responding to a new culture with an outsider’s gaze, but we comprehend his delight in the revelries and bonds he is revealing. And it is a delight communicated to the audience. We, too, are falling in love with a new world.
It is during the wedding celebrations that the film abruptly shifts tone when Laura discovers her daughter, Irene, played by Carla Campra, has gone missing. Very quickly, a text message is received informing her that Irene has been kidnapped and if Laura goes to the police her child will be killed.
Farhadi has so expertly set up the family and village dynamics that the reveal of the kidnapping is a real shock. Cruz is phenomenally good in conveying the almost disbelieving terror Laura experiences in that rush of knowledge. It is here, too, where the director’s commitment to making vivid each member of his ensemble pays off. The violation of what is done to the family is heartbreaking and we viscerally experience the surreal immediate aftermath of such an event. How would any of us react to such an atrocity? Characters behave in expected and unexpected ways and in those tense and frightening moments Farhadi shows his expert craft as a filmmaker. For close to half-an-hour he has captivated us in the unfolding of a family reunion. Without that early preparation, the horror we now experience would not be as powerful.
The lingering and deleterious effect of secrets has been a constant theme of all Farhadi’s work. Those evasions and secrets are personal and familial and they are also social and political. But, unfortunately, in Everybody Knows, this obsession to integrate the political with the personal proves to be the film’s undoing. Once Laura’s husband flies in from Argentina, the almost unbearable tension of the film begins to dissipate. Farhadi wrote the script himself and as the reveals and plot turns become increasingly melodramatic, we begin to lose trust in the filmmaker’s purpose.
Unlike his Iranian films, the eruption of conflict that arises with the kidnapping – concerning issues of land ownership, past exploitation and the contemporary class instability of post-Great Recession Europe – seems tacked on and unconvincing. It’s as if what could have been a taut and effective thriller is undermined by the director’s intent to try to make it also a film of social commentary. There are brief moments of insight. Farhadi captures well that complex immigrant wish to prove oneself a success in your country of origin, and of how that desire necessitates the deliberate falsifying or occluding of real pain. Yet as the film becomes increasingly histrionic, the patience of the viewer is exhausted. The violence of the kidnapping has been too real, too confronting, and all the arguments around disputed land and disputed history are disconnected from it. Farhadi must know this. When the resolution comes, it makes no sense. In the cinema, you could feel the audience’s disappointment and disbelief.
It’s possible that after the success of A Separation and The Salesman, both of which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the expectations on Farhadi have become compromising. It’s also possible that such an impossible hope is projected on Iranian filmmakers as a group. Recently, I was listening to LCD Soundsystem’s deliciously funny track “Losing My Edge” and laughing to myself at how excited I was as a young cinephile in the 1990s, when Makhmalbaf’s Salaam Cinema and A Moment of Innocence were first screened at my city’s film festivals, when I first saw Kiarostami’s Close-up, Through the Olive Trees, Ten, and Panahi’s The Circle and Crimson Gold, when I was introduced to Forough Farrokhzad’s early 1960s masterpiece The House Is Black at a Melbourne Cinémathéque screening that was placing contemporary Iranian film in context. Film after film would see me come out of the auditorium delirious with joy. Friends and I would talk until dawn about the possibilities promised by such work.
The revolution in Iranian film arose from both the wondrous tradition of documentary-making in Iran in the 1960s and ’70s, and has always been informed by the great tradition of Farsi poetry. All these works resurrected realist film and offered a postmodernism of wonder, enchantment and humanist critique that made a mockery of the cheap, cynical pastiches of European and Anglophone cinema. So yes, I laughed listening to the track, but if I was too young for punk or the French New Wave, I was glad I was there for house music and for Iranian cinema.
Of all the major Iranian directors, Farhadi is the most conventional when it comes to cinematic form, to narrative storytelling. He doesn’t have the poet’s instinct to experiment with cinema language, which makes Kiarostami’s work so radical. And although I think Farhadi is an artist of serious moral purport, his career suggests he isn’t interested in pursuing the question of what a truly humanist filmmaking practice is, with the same integrity and commitment as Panahi, whose This Is Not a Film I consider the greatest political cinematic work of art of the past quarter-century. I thought both A Separation and The Salesman powerful and moving films, but as with most of Farhadi’s films, they fade in my memory. Images, cuts or sequences don’t resonate. This is why the early scenes in Everybody Knows are genuinely exciting, for they are suggestive of a filmmaker who is keen to keep developing and experimenting, that there is a freedom he has gained as an artist in working in Spain. But it’s as if it wasn’t enough to make a brilliantly executed genre film. He’s a wonder with actors and his understanding of suspense is marvellous. Everybody Knows doesn’t work and the ending is a disaster, but there isn’t a Hollywood director working now who wouldn’t kill for some of Farhadi’s Hitchcockian instinct and talent. He’s proved himself. He doesn’t have to save the world every time.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 9, 2019 as "Cruz control". Subscribe here.