Farhadi and the Art of Peeling a Story: Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows

Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem in Everybody Knows (2018)

Picture a small village in Spain; teenagers Irene and Filepe are in the throes of young love and are fooling around with the church bell in a dingy church belfry. The walls are dark but one can see the initials scratched on them, perhaps with a stone: LP. “Do you wonder where they are now?” he asks. “Probably dead,” she says. L and P stand for Laura, her mother, and Paco, his uncle, he explains. They were deeply and forever in love before Laura married Alejandro and left for Argentina. “Todos lo saben”. Everybody knows.

Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows (2018), that just screened at the Toronto International Film Festival after its Cannes outing, stars the inimitable Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem as Laura and Paco. Like most other films of Farhadi, Everybody Knows begins on such a high-tenored note of joy in an idyllic small-town Spain that it feels foreboding; something we’ve seen earlier in the pre-tragedy singing and making merry in About Elly (2009) and the loving play acting of the actor couple in The Salesman (2016). The high-on-sunshine-happiness of Everybody Knows is also perhaps something that Farhadi’s move away from his restrictive filmmaking in Iran, and into the tropical weather of Spain, affords him. Almodovar’s staple cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine’s camerawork makes this film cleaner and glossier than most other Farhadi films.

Laura, with her children, comes to attend her sister’s wedding which is also attended by the vineyard-owning Paco and his wife, and the extended family who make merry, dance, drink and sing very loudly. It is a large Spanish family and Farhadi depicts their social camaraderie beautifully in the wedding and the subsequent reception scenes. Again, it is such an extreme happiness that it becomes uncomfortable with its fullness, you can barely wait for things to go wrong, for something tragic to happen.

Farhadi, the master of the very delayed and the very measured melodrama, draws out the love, hugs and kisses and establishes the happy exterior of Laura’s family before he makes it all come tumbling down with Irene’s abduction. She is abducted from her bed while the wedding party was on, literally under the whole family’s watch. What follows is not just a search but, in trademark Farhadi style, a takedown of every facade of morality the extended family puts up for society.

Per usual, it starts with money. The abductors text asking for a lot of money and it takes no time for Laura to confess that she and her family, in spite of the philanthropic facade, are in fact battling with bankruptcy; her husband, Alejandro has not had a job for two years. Laura’s father, who has gambled away all his property, in his drunken stupor, goes about town demanding all the property back. One begins to see the irony in the film’s title; clearly, everybody knows parts of each of the family’s skeletons in the closet, but not enough and never in their entirety. The questions of the film never quite limit themselves to “Does everybody know?” but are always variations of “How much does everybody know?” With a retired police inspector constantly asking everyone to be cautious, and warning the family that the abduction is most definitely a close family member’s brainchild, the tacit trust that comes, by default, with most family narratives, is punctured and is one is forced to hold everyone suspect; perhaps everyone is double crossing and is being completely driven by a thirst for money, power and recognition. Everyone is promising to keep secrets before promptly going ahead and divulging secrets, so much so that the “A told B, and then B came and told me” line of dialogues run the risk of getting a tad tedious.

Like an onion, Farhadi peels down layer after layer of the narrative with the suspense and unsolved crime of the abduction hanging in the air. While the plot does start out being about finding who the abductors are, it soon meanders into exploring the lies and the secrets of the family, and ultimately becomes a discovery of who exactly is speaking the truth among the large ensemble cast. Everyone has a double face; the God-fearing Alejandro is also a drunk, the grieving Laura is also an extremely emotionally manipulative person and Paco keeps struggling with his own guilt at having bought off a large chunk of the family’s property. Farhadi masterfully prolongs the resolution of the crime just so we can peek deeper and deeper into the cesspool of lies that the family tries to hide. This uncovering of lies gains so much precedence that the final resolution of the crime brings very little resolution to the larger narrative. Even when we know who did it and why, there is none of that relief that comes at the end of a crime thriller because we know that nothing will ever go back to the happy normal the film started with, in anyone’s life. Farhadi does this immensely well, but it isn’t something he hasn’t done before. In fact, he has done this in much more complicated ways.

Penelope Cruz, in her ever-gorgeous self, does what she does better than anyone else; playing an extremely emotional, often melodramatic, character unhindered by the restrictions of stoic Western cinema. The men, Bardem and Darín, are excellent in their relatively subdued, very measured performances as they try outdoing each other’s very masculine egos. The confidence and the effervescence with which the entire cast essays their roles, are perhaps what give a fresh edge to a story Farhadi has often told before.

Not all ends add up and not all questions are answered, but Everybody Knows is a film that addresses the greed that underlines most relationships in our society and in effect, creates a largely disturbing narrative that leaves behind gaping wounds even after the story tries putting a hasty Band-Aid on them.

This Toronto International Film Festival article was published in September 2018