Laura (Penélope Cruz) has come back to Spain. A seemingly vivacious woman, she has returned from Buenos Aires in order to enjoy her sister’s wedding in her hometown. But like all hometowns, Laura’s contains painful secrets that she has managed to suppress for many years. We sense that something is boiling underneath the surface when she meets Paco (Javier Bardem), a man she used to be intimate with before leaving for South America. They still remain on good terms, managing to joke about her children and why her husband hasn’t join her.
Suddenly, the traditional Spanish wedding — replete with a Catholic ceremony, expressive dancing, and all-night partying — ends in tragedy. Both Laura and Paco are slowly forced to clean the skeletons out of their closet, making for a potentially intriguing character drama that promises great things but never truly manages to take off.
While most directors use drama in order to express character, Farhadi uses it to reveal character. Moral situations are imposed on people to expose what really lies beneath the surface. The central event in Everybody Knows is no different, forcing Laura and her ex-lover to reconsider their past and why things turned out the way they did. As Everybody Knows is a film where the second two-thirds are mostly figuring out what happened in the first third, its the kind of film that would probably increase in pleasure upon a re-watch, a movie that rewards attentive viewers to pick up on certain clues. There is no chit-chatty or throwaway dialogue here; instead, Farhadi carefully layers each line on top of each other in a slow crescendo of constantly rising action.
Penélope Cruz is reliably good as a woman going through an intensely traumatic experience, and she truly meets her equal with Javier Bardem’s Paco, the pair’s real-life marriage working to the film’s advantage. Bardem gives the more layered performance, being able to express an acute, melancholy mix of joy and sadness that hardly any other actor can pull off, and they are joined by a murderers’ row of stellar Spanish-speaking talent that includes Imma Cuesta and Elvira Mínguez as Laura’s sisters, Bárbara Lennie as Paco’s wife, and Argentinean legend Ricardo Darín (best known for the brilliant The Secret in Their Eyes) as Cruz’s husband, Alejandro.
The camerawork is un-showy, deploying mostly medium shots in order to let the actors really chew into the material, but the problem with this is the repetitiousness of certain scenes; endlessly watching the players walk into rooms, sit down in chairs, and discuss the next turn of events can feel stale after a while. Farhadi does still manage to do a lot with this, however, subtly framing his characters in different ways in order to represent slight changes in power dynamics. Its a type of filming that remains quietly effective, and has succeeded to great effect in his previous movies. Something feels off in Everybody Knows, however, which at a leisurely 130 minutes, keeps spinning its dialogue-heavy wheels when it should be tightening the screws. One essential last-minute twist, for example, is simply revealed without any real suspension, robbing the audience of a masterful reveal.
Asghar Farhadi has always been a director to watch since the devastating A Separation won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film back in 2012. He has a rare gift for moral dramas that are riveting in both their simplicity of narrative and complexity of their emotional gifts. With Everybody Knows, his first Spanish-language movie (he has directed before in Farsi and French), Farhadi applies this formula once again, yet instead of feeling fresh, it comes off as more like a loose remake of the far better expressed About Elly — ultimately the dramatic equivalent of the Shephard tone (see: the music of Hans Zimmer), where everything feels like it is moving upward, but in fact only does so due to the illusion created by his skill at screenplay writing. While it is a pleasure to see the master so in command of his art-form, Everybody Knows never manages to hit that high point it promises. It’s like watching someone set up a firework, light the fuse, and then simply let the flame burn out.