Two years after The Salesman played in competition at Cannes, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi opens the 71st iteration of the festival with his mystery-thriller Everybody Knows, boasting an attractive trio of Latin performances from Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darín and Penélope Cruz, in a compelling drama concerning lost loves and family ties.
The opening scene lingers in the dilapidated belfry of a provincial Spanish church where a creaking clock grinds through the minutes before sending pigeons into chaos as the hour strikes. As the pigeons settle back to their perches, the camera pans down over the graffiti of one-time lovers who have etched their initials into the wall amidst the crumbling stone work: ‘P’ and ‘L’.
We first meet Laura (Cruz) who, along with her two young children, has returned to her rural family home just outside Madrid for her sister’s wedding after leaving her husband Alejandro (Darin) back in Buenos Aires. The sun-drenched, sleepy town is sent into a throng of activity for the wedding. Here, Laura encounters her one-time lover Paco (Bardem), a warm, light-hearted winemaker, now married to Bea (Bárbara Lennie), a local teacher of disadvantaged teens.
On the night of the wedding a thunderstorm seemingly causes a power cut, putting a pause to the raucous nuptials. Minutes later, Laura checks on her teenage daughter, Irene (Carla Campra), who she discovers has vanished. Where Laura’s daughter was once sleeping lays threatening newspaper clippings of a girl who was abducted several years earlier. Frantically searching the house, Laura hunts for her daughter in the attic by the glow of her mobile phone, which suddenly buzzes with a message demanding a ransom of €300,000 for her daughter’s return.
From here, Farhadi ratchets up the tension. Where once there was love and affection in Laura’s family there is now suspicion and guilt. Old wounds are torn open once and the bonds of family are tested to breaking point. We start to wonder: was this an inside job? Could it be one of the immigrant farm hands? Or could it be Paco who has kidnapped the daughter of the women that rejected him? And what was the real reason Laura’s husband didn’t attend the wedding?
Farhadi keeps us on our toes. Where his cinematographer, José Luis Alcaine, once lingered on the soft, muted yellows of the local stone work and verdant vineyards, we now focus on the tear-stained face of Cruz and the stoicism of Bardem who sit in the shaded confines of bedrooms and hallways.
The success of Farhadi’s film lays in his choice of casting. Scenes shared between Darín’s God-fearing Alejandro and Bardem’s pragmatic Paco are an absorbing exercise in craft. Yet, where Everybody Knows falls down, almost to the point of laughter, is in how it seems to toy with plotting devices you might find in a Spanish TV melodrama. Yet, the hook of the mystery keeps you watching, and in Farhadi’s hands even the far-fetched appears believable.
As time ticks along, Farhadi brings home his message with a bell-hammer, and it feels overly laboured to the detriment of the film. Arguably, this is the Iranian’s most mainstream film to date, and lacks the subtlety of his early work, yet he still shows he has the ability to deliver devastating blows that leave you stunned. While not on top form, Faradhi demonstrates he is still a master craftsman, albeit in a more conventional mould.
The 71st Cannes Film Festival takes place from 8-19 May.
Joseph Walsh | @JosephDAWalsh