‘Everybody Knows’ Weaves an Absorbing Thriller out of Family Secrets

Everybody Knows” carefully assembles a mystery out of shattering secrets and lingering, powerful feelings. Asghar Farhadi, possibly Iran’s greatest living filmmaker and one of the key figures in world cinema, leaves his usual Persian settings to find inspiration in Spain. Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem become the main players in his haunted, absorbing thriller where words become as dangerous as daggers. Interesting how for a filmmaker like Farhadi tension and suspense build through characters, not violence. He is a refined storyteller who doesn’t need to resort to cheap twists and shootouts.

The story here focuses on Laura (Cruz), who is returning from Argentina to her Spanish village, to attend the wedding of her sister Ana (Inma Cuesta) to Joan (Roger Casamajor). She brings along her young son and teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra). This is also a chance to catch up with Paco (Bardem), an old friend and love from more youthful days. But now he too is married, to Bea (Bárbara Lennie), with whom he runs a successful vineyard. The night of the wedding turns into a rowdy and grand party. Then the lights go out and Irene is missing, all that’s left on her bed are newspaper clippings of a past disappearance. Text messages begin appearing in Laura’s phone, demanding ransom money in exchange for her daughter. As the family desperately tries to find answers and help, old wounds begin to resurface including feelings that have not been completely buried. Paco seems only too willing to do anything to help Laura. Her own family still harbors resentment towards Paco over his purchase of their lands. Soon Laura’s husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin) flies in as the questions and suspicions threaten to envelop whole lives.

With this film Farhadi shows his impressive versatility while again delivering a work of controlled tension, where the story patiently builds yet never meanders. Farhadi’s previous works, including the Oscar winners “A Separation” and “The Salesman,” were riveting stories of individuals with personal conflicts in contemporary Iran. Separations, suspicions of untold crimes and disappearances have marked the director’s work, especially the Bergmanesque “About Elly,” about a teacher who disappears by the sea. With “Everybody Knows” Farhadi adapts his obsessions to a Spanish setting with a beautiful, almost literary force. So well does he capture the cultural nuances that this film is easily comparable to works by Spanish greats like Carlos Saura or Victor Erice. The setting is simple and Farhadi turns a small village into a cauldron of fierce emotions. His cinematographer is José Luis Alcaine, who has shot films for Pedro Almodovar and here films with a razor clear, stripped style that focuses on faces and reactions. In the style of classic thrillers, regular moments lead to wrenching plot twists. Farhadi carefully pulls us into the party atmosphere of the early wedding scenes, giving every character space to be introduced and leave a presence. These moments have an authenticity that borders on documentary. Then the power goes out and Laura discovers Irene is missing. We sense closeness between her and Paco, it could be any other reunion of old lovers, but because Farhadi is after more than mere rehashing, the mystery becomes a catalyst.

As in his previous films, Farhadi never gives anything away easily, so when a major revelation appears it truly is a stunner that brings a whole new dimension to the plot. But the plot is also a vehicle for an array of themes. Maybe it’s because Farhadi comes from a country where filmmakers must be careful about how to make statements in their cinema, that he has mastered the kind of subtly you find more easily in literature. Paco’s connection to Laura also touches on the lasting class divisions in Spain. Her father, Antonio (Ramón Barea), used to be a major landowner until money troubles forced the family to sell to Paco. Now he spends his days stumbling in the local bars, railing against what he sees as mere peasants. Even as everyone worries about Irene, Antonio can’t help but sneer at Paco. Inevitably some begin to suspect the migrants who work Paco’s lands, who happen to be Middle Eastern. Before suspecting their own, a community will immediately begin wondering about the outsiders. Yet Laura’s own life is a façade, and she must soon admit that her husband Alejandro has been jobless for nearly two years. Unlike many fantastical, laughably naïve romances, the hidden love story of “Everybody Knows” is marked by the melancholy of past remembrances and feelings left hanging in the wind. Laura left Paco for Argentina, and now that she needs desperate help she worries he will now fulfill some lingering need for revenge. But it isn’t that simple and their relationship doesn’t develop in clichés, because Farhadi wants to craft characters as complex and conflicted as real life.

This is a fantastic cast all around. Cruz and Bardem are famously married, yet bring to the screen the kind of tension and intimacy of a broken romance. Maybe it is precisely because they are so intimately linked that they comprehend how to conjure these feelings. Ricardo Darin, a notable Latin American actor who has appeared in great films like “The Secret In Their Eyes” and “Wild Tales,” is brilliantly pathetic as Alejandro. While everyone scrambles to find Irene, he insists in putting his trust in God. There is no false heroism or melodrama, just people experiencing a crushing test.

Purely as a thriller, “Everybody Knows” engages the viewer with an intelligence and craft sorely missed in most American factory product. It takes us to a specific place, with specific personalities. Its mystery is quite simple, but it’s the secrets and feelings the other players are hiding that truly matter. This is a real filmmaker who knows how to tell great stories.

Everybody Knows” opens Feb. 8 in select theaters.