'Everybody Knows' ('Todos lo saben'): Film Review | Cannes 2018

If everybody knows, where's the mystery?

The Cannes opener (in competition) was directed by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi ('A Separation') and stars Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem.

Extended families, class differences, children being crushed underfoot (mostly metaphorically), long-ago secrets that reluctantly float to the surface — on paper, Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben) has the classic ingredients of the best work of Asghar Farhadi, who won Oscars for his Iranian dramas A Separation and The Salesman and who earlier worked in a foreign language in The Past, with Berenice Bejo and Tahar Rahim.

But instead of another perceptive family drama that examines questions of morals and personal responsibility from different sides, his latest feature — and his first in Spanish — has a more overt genre touch, revolving around a kidnapping and a ransom sum that needs to be found in a place where most villagers turn out to have more grievances than money. The result is an odd, somewhat underwhelming hybrid that’s part talky thriller, part family drama, though the package of Farhadi plus stars Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem should nonetheless make this a fairly appealing proposition at art houses worldwide.

After years in Argentina, Laura (Cruz) has returned to Spain for the wedding of her younger sister, Ana (Inma Cuesta), to Joan (Roger Casamajor). She has traveled with her teenage daughter, Irene (Carla Campra), and her young son, Diego (Ivan Chavero), though the kids’ Argentinean father, Alejandro (Darin), has remained at home. They are staying at the large village abode of Laura’s aging father, the former landowner Antonio (Ramon Barea). Everyone is happy to see Laura and her brood again, including her siblings, in-laws and family friend Paco (Javier Bardem), a successful local vintner married to the conspicuously childless Bea (Barbara Lennie).

The first reels are sun-dappled and leisurely in a way none of Farhadi’s previous films have been. One could initially be forgiven for thinking this was the latest in a long line of pretty-but-not-very-deep commercial films from yesteryear, like Under the Tuscan Sun or A Walk in the Clouds, in which the gorgeous vistas had more depth than the story.

It takes about 20 minutes before the first significant piece of information from the past surfaces, while the wedding mass is celebrated. Paco’s nephew Felipe (Sergio Castellanos) has escaped to the church’s bell chamber with Irene. In the room’s exquisite ochre light, he reveals to her that Laura and Paco used to be childhood sweethearts. Later that evening, a family member goes missing and it becomes clear that a crime has been committed when text messages start to arrive. This is when the wedding party — up until then in full swing despite a power outage (later thought to be intentional) and a torrential downpour (probably still natural) — comes to a screeching halt.

To what extent the past influences the behavior and decision-making processes of people in the present has been a recurring theme in Farhadi’s work. He’s been especially interested in how links to often-unsuspected antecedents can make people’s conduct seem illogical or irrational to others and how this, in turn, means that most people seem unpredictable. Using secrets that are carefully unraveled as a structural device has another advantage as well, as it allows the filmmaker to give his potentially sprawling family dramas a razor-sharp focus and a sense of mounting tension and unease that turn matters of morality and civility into the material of a thriller. 

Everybody Knows does have a few big secrets up its sleeve but, unfortunately, they never produce the same effect as in Farhadi’s previous works. This is firstly because the biggest revelation can be seen coming from miles away, robbing the proceedings of tension and of its potential to turn family history into a thriller. The actual abduction plot in the present — with all its suspects and red herrings — and the mysteries in the past are also not sufficiently tied together, so the narrative keeps hobbling from one plot strand to the other without ever really becoming a gripping maelstrom of revelations as things get progressively worse for the characters.

If the film remains largely watchable it is because Farhadi has cast some of the finest actors in Spain and they know how to breathe life into their characters even when they don’t have all that much to do (though a few of them have quite a lot to say). Bardem and especially Cruz impress in roles specifically written for them; their chemistry, but also their melancholy about what might have been, is palpable, while their worries over the fate of the kidnappee further complicate their emotions.

That said, there is not a false note in the entire cast, which is so large it is hard to keep track of everyone and their possible motives, especially when Alejandro also shows up from Argentina and a retired police officer (Jose Angel Egido) starts asking everyone uncomfortable questions. The perpetrators’ identities and motivation, when they are revealed, are barely explored, leaving the resolution feeling somewhat arbitrary and again robbing the film of a potential source of tension. More room is given to discussions of issues such as class, property and money — things that can be divisive in any family but here feel a tad superficial and repetitive. If everybody knew, as the title suggests, why isn't that turned into a source of tension, a la Chronicle of a Death Foretold

The pic's production design and costumes, while admittedly gorgeous, manage to just barely stay on the right side of Spanish-countryside clichés. The same can’t be said of the cinematography by Almodovar regular Jose Luis Alcaine, which is much glossier than the more modest realism that cinematographers Hossein Jafarian and Mahmoud Kalari have brought to Farhadi’s work in the past. Here, everything’s beautifully captured in a Conde Nast Traveler-kind of way, which works fine in Almodovar’s heightened melodramas but feels like an odd fit for Farhadi’s earthier and more sober storytelling sensibilities.

Production companies: Memento Films Production, Morena Films, Lucky Red
Cast: Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darin, Eduard Fernandez, Barbara Lennie, Inma Cuesta, Elvira Minguez, Ramon Barea, Carla Campra, Sara Salamo, Roger Casamajor, Jose Angel Egido
Writer-director: Asghar Farhadi
Producers: Alexandre Mallet-Guy, Alvaro Longoria
Director of photography: Jose Luis Alcaine
Production designer: Maria Clara Notari
Costume designer: Sonia Grande
Editor: Hayedeh Safiyari
Music: Javier Limon
Casting: Eva Leira, Yolanda Serrano
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition — Opening Film)
Sales: Memento

In Spanish
132 minutes