By Andrew Kendall in Toronto
I made the mistake of glancing at a few reviews of Ashgar Farhadi’s “Everybody Knows” while I was working on my review. One of the glorious things about seeing a film at a festival is going in blind and forming an opinion before popular opinion descends. It’s a freeing experience in the film criticism world, where sometimes information overloaded threatens to cut through your own unique reaction to the film.
Farhadi directs his first Spanish film, a sprawling family drama that builds tension and intrigue as the lives of the characters threaten to buckle under pressure. The film depends on emotions at fray within the film. And in this way, I was perhaps unsurprised at the way the critical response (the positive ones, as well as the less positive ones) seemed to weaponise some of the film’s intrinsic qualities against it. Telenovela is one the word most consistently thrown around, emphasising both a glib essentialism (any Spanish film that flirts with melodrama must be telenovela) and a strange unwillingness to take films on their own terms within literary genres that’s more than reductive.
Melodrama is, in fact, not a word that Farhadi is unfamiliar with. The director has made his mark investigating families or friends who are torn apart when things go awry. Incidental moments build up to catastrophic results and Farhadi teases the audience with clues, sometimes overt and sometimes subtle. Here, the setting is Spain and the language is Spanish, and of all his films it feels the most literary (even more than the previous “The Shopkeeper” which was an intertextual look at Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”). “Everybody Knows” feels lifted from the 1930s school of theatre, somewhere with a heavy button on the Expressionism. It’s like something from Eugene O’Neill or a less perverse version of Lorca’s “Blood Wedding.” There’s an air of tragic inevitably washing over the entire thing that’s established from the opening – my favourite opening credits of the festival so far. A bird sits behind the broken clock of a church. The bells toll, in celebration or mourning? Everything feels loaded. But what’s the symbolism? Is it the ticking of the clock marking things happening in motion? The almost facile bird looking vulnerable? The tolling bells signalling… doom? And at first we don’t know what is happening even as the title promises, almost mockingly, “everybody knows.”
We are in Spain. Laura has come to visit her family from Argentina for her sister’s wedding. So she returns to her hometown outside Madrid with her son and daughter with excitement, even as her husband is notably absent. The joyous wedding gives way to tragedy very soon when a disappearance upends the occasion and the entire family as secrets begin to leak out. As tragedy strikes, the film becomes prickly and frustrating in the best of ways. For example, the film ends with a secret being told as we watch two of the more minor characters within the family discuss an important revelation as the screen fades to white. It’s as if Farhadi is teasing. Since the revelation we’ve been waiting for everyone to know, we want the explosions, we want some semblance of justice. But do we? By the end of the family’s ordeal, the entire affair has taken on voyeuristic proportions. It’s messy, it’s unrelenting and it’s affecting. Like family. And at the end of the day, what have you got to show for it? “Everybody Knows” is the best and the worst of family affairs and like Expressionism done well its focus on spiritual awakenings and suffering feels at home in the genre, even as I suspect the events seem overwrought for someone looking for realism.
To its credit, though, “Everybody Knows” is not interested in palatability or easiness and in typical Farhadi fashion even when the resolutions come they are more superficial than profound. Because nothing really is resolved. The film’s title unsubtly plays with the idea of knowing and not knowing and on our human instinct is to solve things. The film’s ensemble cast never buckles under the weight of all the things it does. It feels like an essential part in Penélope Cruz’s career. In the last decade, she’s become a fascinating actress in multiple languages, but there’s nothing like hearing an actor speak in their native tongue. The film turns on her. The weight of the waves of plot and moments and twists might threaten to fall but as Laura, a mother in distress, she holds it together. The film’s most evocative image is of her bathed in darkness, the only light being the torchlight from a phone as she looks at horrifying message. This is a face movies were made for. In the film’s most rocky scene, a late revelation is made that threatens to turn the film into something too overwrought. But Farhadi trusts Cruz and she delivers, excellently supported by Javier Bardem giving a deft performance.
The film is not for all. It’s sold as a thriller and so its discursiveness could become frustrating. We keep searching for answers and when they come, we might be inclined to resent their lateness or the fact that they are unsurprising. The delayed deliveries ends up working though, like the muddy shoes that become key to the film’s biggest reveal, the film clings to us in a way that’s uncomfortable but searing if we allow it. In a way its title becomes mocking because it’s a wilful ignorance that marks the characters within the film. Maybe the thing that everybody knows is nobody knows anything. Not really.