Caricatures roam a thinly sketched rural Madrid in Asghar Fahadi’s English-language debut

Ruairí McCann on Asghar Farhadi’s ‘Everybody Knows’ (2018)

Asghar Farhadi’s latest feature Everybody Knows / Todos lo saben begins with a powerful image at the nexus of an old Spanish village: a broken-down church bell tower. Its cogs and gears, despite age and rot, still rumble and turn but always stops short of ticking onward. Time, then, doesn’t progress. Instead, this old world of Europe and Spain is stuck in an unhappy present, where old lineages and traditions have lost their lustre, yet still wield sway. Though not enough to turn back the clock. Instead, they keep it broken.

It’s into this world that Laura (Penelope Cruz) and her children arrive, accompanied by a string of charming rustic images. From sun-dried fields to old women flinging their laundry over balconies, Farhadi acutely shows a Spanish veneer that, once scratched, fields for a Laura a homecoming made troubling by the years she has spent abroad, her dysfunctional family, and the prospect of a reunion with Paco (Javier Bardem): the servant’s son with whom this old landowner’s daughter fell in love and then left behind. He is now a married man, grown prosperous and prominent off the back of his vineyard. Tensions might have stayed sleeping under the surface, but forces intervene during a power cut that interrupts a family wedding and distracts from the kidnapping of Laura’s eldest, Irene (Carla Campra).

What unfurls is a thriller, which for better and ultimately worse, operates with little to no propulsion. A slow burn because it is predicated on old money who, in the face of their dwindling finances and status and the rise of nouveau riche like Paco, opt not for forward action or redefinition but to languish in the past while still claiming to rule the present. Producing figures like Laura’s brother-in-law, Fernando (Eduard Fernández). He’s a friend of Paco’s, yet clearly sees himself, not Paco, as the village doyen; a friend to all who can move mountains with just a phone call or two. Yet he spends more time grumbling about immigrants and his efforts towards Irene’s recovery begin in a flurry of activity only to quickly peter out.

He’s not alone in this purgatorial state. The whole family are there as flaunted by the wedding itself. A community enveloping event whose scale, we’re told, is dictated by tradition and so speaks to influence they no longer possess, funded with money they barely have. This excess, and their desperation to seem still with it, is summed up by the most conspicuous shot in an otherwise earthbound and conservative palette — the POV of a drone they’ve hired as it soars up and up till it surveys, eagle-eyed. The suggestion that these people are not only up to date but, via this commanding view of their domain, in control is undermined by both the power cut and the vanishing but most effectively by Laura’s father (Ramón Barea). This blustery old patriarch, who is by a country mile the strictest, and therefore the most deluded, adherent to their former prestige, is left caterwauling to be released from his stairlift which, due to the blackout, has stalled mid-ascent.

Despite the rich themes and locale, the film quickly runs aground in a seemingly endless middle section. Where the search for Irene, involving the deciphering of a slew of intimidating text messages demanding a ransom for her safe return, is dominated by a series of tête-à-têtes and group conversations where the same few people keep pulling each other aside to break the same few revelations, ad nauseam. This is not an inherently faulty structure, but the gains of a repeat exposure to characters’ fundamental flaws, fears and landmarks are thwarted when they are little more than caricatures roaming a thinly sketched rural Madrid.

Bardem manages to cut the one line of interest in that 2nd and 3rd act morass with his journey towards becoming a tragic hero. An archetype that he’s forcibly fitted into by a surrogate family who, despite his standing, cannot stop seeing him as the boy who worked on their estate. So, he bears both the burden and the cost of finding Irene. Turning a latin lover type who can’t go anywhere without mugging and cavorting, into a somnambulist. A leaden shell of a man who looks like he’s aged ten years in a couple of days. But Bardem is undermined by a lack of chemistry between his character and Laura, his supposed motivation – a curious case of anhedonia given the actors’ real-life matrimony. The cause is possibly the side-lining and distortion of her character, who, in concept, occupies a complicated position. One torn between the habitus inherited from her change-averse and bigoted family and the perspective granted to her by years spent abroad and her history with Paco. It could have made for a movingly entangled internal conflict, but in execution it comes across as one-dimensional scheming and hysterics.

Yet that the notion of a more realised personality is at all readable goes in part to suggest that with the same setting, actors and preoccupations, an interesting film could have been made if only Farhadi had built on his groundwork.

Showing in cinemas now

Ruairí McCann

By Ruairí McCann

Ruairí McCann is a critic based in Belfast. He runs a monthly film column for Film Hub NI and has appeared in Photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Little White Lies, and The Thin Air.