Everybody Knows opens with a whirlwind introduction to a sprawling Spanish family, introducing sisters, in-laws, nieces and nephews so breathlessly you may feel the urge to make a diagram. At the wedding they’ve gathered for, videographers fly a drone camera high over the raucous reception, as if to get a handle on the whole thing, at least visually. The web of relationships, loyalties, and long-buried grievances is the living organism that will fuel the next two hours, but it’s enough intrigue to fuel a year of soap opera episodes. Oscar-winning Persian director Asghar Farhadi may have changed locales to the picturesque wine country outside Madrid for his foray into Spanish-language cinema, but his interest in the microcosms of small communities needs no translation, and perhaps even benefits from some fresh scenery. The intricate tapestry of dramatis personae he weaves is, as ever, a feat in and of itself, even if its purpose feels more or less fulfilled by the time the credits roll.
The gossipy title, as the best titles do, mutates in meaning over the course of the film. At first, it alludes to the years-long love affair between Laura (Penélope Cruz) and Paco (Javier Bardem), going back to when they were teens and Paco worked for Laura’s family. Laura has since married a wealthy older man, moved to Argentina, and raised two children with him. Paco and his wife Bea (Bárbara Lennie) now live and work on land formerly owned by Laura’s father, where they have a vineyard. But the knowledge of their love is a fact of village life, literally etched into the stones of the church bell tower.
When Laura returns for her sister’s wedding, she brings her children but not her husband, enough to raise eyebrows from the start. Her rebellious teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra) wastes no time getting to know a local boy who ends up being Paco’s nephew, and wreaking havoc in the wings of the wedding proceedings. The wedding reception is an early centerpiece of the film, immersive and full of life and little character moments that Farhadi piles one onto another, building a pleasantly overwhelming, wine-drunk human symphony that seems to almost play out in real time.
But crisis strikes when Irene goes missing, and her kidnappers begin texting the family ransom demands. The film’s abrupt turn into what feels like thriller territory is a little bit of a letdown; it already felt like there was plenty going on on the dance floor, especially in the warm, unspoken familiarity between Bardem and Cruz and the relationship among her sisters. But of course, Farhadi uses the crisis as a kind of accelerator for all the dynamics he’s set up, and it quickly draws out mistrust among family members that’s been lying dormant for years — especially when it becomes clear that whoever is responsible has a strong connection to the family. The mystery becomes popcorn-chompingly compelling, each new piece of information adding shading and dimension to the true shape of the family. Nobody is above suspicion or below empathy.
Laura and Paco grow closer in the search for Irene, but the film refuses — smartly, tantalizingly — to go down the typical rekindled affair route. Their mutual understanding is deeper than that; it certainly doesn’t hurt that real-life spouses Bardem and Cruz have a palpable connection onscreen. The arrival of Laura’s husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) casts an uneasy new light on things, eventually leading to the film’s one real dun-dun-dunnnn dramatic revelation, which I personally saw coming a few hundred kilometers away. Thankfully, Everybody Knows relies very little on such twists; the rest is all just the pleasant discovery of nuance.
How much Everybody Knows has to say about anything beyond the intrigues of its ensemble is the real question. The film has top-to-bottom great performances; Bardem in particular is excellent as a big, warm father figure to the village, a guy with a heart so big it threatens to spill out all over the screen. Lennie is also superb as his wife, barely able to hide her exasperation at her outsider role in the family crisis. The performances suggest something more universal than the crackerjack plot machine that Everybody Knows ends up being. Despite its prestige-y trappings, it’s tempting to use the word soapy to describe Farhadi’s film. But the joke’s on anyone who would read that as a slur: they may not change your life, but soaps are a great way to spend an hour or two.