Everybody Knows review – Cruz and Bardem pull no punches in heavyweight kidnap drama

Iranian director Farhadi opens Cannes with a film that explores the unhealed wound at the heart of a Spanish family with pitiless efficiency and sheer muscular flair

The outer threat, the inner wound and the mystery in between. These are the determinant factors in Asghar Farhadi’s intimately painful and powerfully acted kidnap drama, crucially anchored by three heavyweight performances from Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Ricardo Darín.

It has been conceived by Farhadi on familiar lines, with ideas reminiscent of his own earlier work and, at one further remove, of influences from Haneke and Antonioni. There is, maybe inevitably, a scene in which a video is desperately scrutinised for clues. Cleverly, some of this video is drone footage, from far overhead, like the point-of-view of a dispassionate, destructive angel. (Perhaps even Haneke might have admired that drone idea.)

This is a movie about a devastating external blow to a family, delivered with almost supernatural accuracy, a blow which exposes all sorts of cracks and weaknesses and fault lines, and does so with such pitiless efficiency that it is almost as if these secrets and lies are a kind of sin which has called forth an inevitable punishment. It is an idea to which Farhadi has been drawn before: the unburied secret, the unhealed wound, the imminent return of the repressed. The criminal theme also, maybe weirdly, called to my mind JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. I think something in the performances and the southern European setting has given Farhadi’s filmic language a new sanguine force.

The scene is a Spanish village to which Laura (Cruz) has returned for a big family wedding after a long time away. Her husband Alejandro (Darín) has stayed behind for work reasons in their new adopted home of Argentina – but she has the two children with her, including her teen daughter Irene (Carla Campra) who to her mother’s considerable disapproval appears to be attracted to a boy there who tells her a secret. Her mother, he says, was once deeply in love with local man Paco (Bardem) and broke his heart in leaving. It is no secret, he assures her: “Todos lo saben – everybody knows.” But what else does everybody “know”?

This question is to assume a horrible significance when Irene disappears in the middle of the wedding party – and in her bedroom someone has left behind newspaper clippings concerning a notorious kidnapping which took place in the area four years earlier. Soon mysterious and untraceable texts arrive demanding money, and threatening dire consequences if the police are contacted.

Who is behind it? Could it be Irene herself, faking an abduction after taking a rebellious fancy to the idea of running off with a lover? Paco himself is in fact resented by Laura’s elderly and cantankerous father for a dispute going back years: that Paco bought land belonging to him at an opportunistic cheap rate, taking advantage of his dire state brought on by boozing and gambling, and turned it into a lucrative vineyard. Could it be that Laura’s family have conspired to pressure and emotionally blackmail Paco for the ransom money as payback? Or is it that Alejandro himself is not as wealthy as everyone has enviously assumed?

Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem in Everybody Knows.
Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem in Everybody Knows. Photograph: Cannes Film Festival

But more than this, it is the suspicion itself which is creating the rancour and the resentment. The abduction has left behind a self-fulfilling prophecy of dismay. The crime has not brought this family together; it has brought to the surface the old grudges which were only manageable because Laura has chosen to live so far away from all these people.

Ultimately, the issue goes beyond money. Everybody Knows has a strong streak of melodrama which is masked by the sophistication and accomplishment of the performances and direction. And there are, just occasionally, plausibility issues. Why does nobody talk about the culprits of the original kidnapping from years before? Wouldn’t they be in the frame, at least provisionally?

What marks this film out is the sheer confidence of the ensemble playing, presented in a more forthright, less indirect way than the puzzles of Farhadi’s previous work. There’s something uncomplicatedly watchable and enjoyable about his big wedding scene, with a trace of Coppola or Cimino in its scope. Irene and her admirer Felipe sneak off during the ceremony and get up into the church belfry and start ringing the bells, to the bemusement of the congregation below. Another director might have made that an obviously ominous flourish and, to be quite honest, Farhadi does belabour the concept of time and fate just a little. But that impromptu bell-ringing scene had such flair, such muscular confidence. And the performances themselves are so intelligent, mature and yet uninhibited. Farhadi’s storytelling has overpowering force.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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