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Everybody’s a Suspect in Everybody Knows

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's films are driven by subtle social dynamics. Can he preserve them in a new thriller?

Teresa Isasi/Focus Features

The camera accompanies a man down several stories in a rickety elevator. As he leaves the building, we stay inside, watching through cracked, dirty glass as he kicks a car and attacks a woman wearing a chador. We can’t quite hear or see what’s happening—is this the wife who’s been trying to catch him out in an affair with their neighbor? A group of bystanders gets involved, and we glide helplessly back up in the elevator, watching the dramatic climax slide out of reach.

That’s a scene from an early film by the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, Fireworks Wednesday (2006). It’s also a signature move of his: characters glimpsed through car windshields or glass doors filled with reflections or shadowy thresholds, doors shut in the viewer’s face, crucial discussions taking place out of earshot. Given that much of Farhadi’s work turns on seemingly small interactions, it’s striking how often he chooses shots that obscure rather than reveal. Withholding in this way increases narrative tension, but it also affects the audience’s feeling for the characters. They are given a privacy we have to respect, and at the same time, veiled by glass or seen at a distance, they appear more vulnerable, more fragile—we can’t tell what might happen to them.

Farhadi’s latestEverybody Knows (Todos lo saben), takes its drama from this same delicate dance of what characters perceive, or don’t, at different moments. Like many of his previous films, it centers on a couple whose long history is palpable and whose relationship is suddenly strained by a crisis. Laura (Penélope Cruz) returns with her children from Buenos Aires to her hometown outside Madrid to attend her sister’s wedding. Little things start to go wrong: A toddler chatters through the ceremony; thunderous chimes from the stone clock tower disturb the congregation; a power outage means that bride and groom cut the cake by the light of their guests’ smartphones. Then, the guests discover that Laura’s teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra) has been abducted.

Laura’s husband, Alejandro (Ricardo Darín), has stayed at home in Argentina, and until he arrives in Spain her main support in this emergency is her friend and first love, Paco (played by Cruz’s husband, Javier Bardem), who runs a small vineyard with his wife, Bea (Bárbara Lennie). Threatening messages arrive, telling the family not to call the police lest the girl be killed. The kidnappers want a ransom, and here some of Farhadi’s favorite fault lines begin to show. Signs suggest that the abduction may be an inside job, done by people who know certain family secrets. Why else would the kidnappers send their threats to Paco’s wife as well as the teenager’s mother? Yet in the small community, the line between family secrets and local gossip is all but nonexistent, hence the movie’s title. Everyone starts to suspect everyone else—even the missing girl’s father.

Though Farhadi has been planning a version of this project for several years, its appearance now feels like a bid for a larger audience, featuring two Hollywood stars and a classic form of woman-in-peril suspense. Originally trained in theater, Farhadi has directed eight films, all but two made and set in Iran. Since the release of his masterpieceA Separation , in 2011, he has achieved a rare and enviable stature internationally, garnering widespread critical acclaim and twice winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. He is very much an auteur, writing most of his scripts alone, haunting the editing room, and frequently involving himself in tiny aspects of sound and set design—the smallest details bear his imprint, and certain motifs recur from film to film. Several of his previous works involve a possible crime and a shifting sense of who might be responsible, but in Everybody Knows, the underlying social tensions and the hapless mistakes and accidents that send everything unraveling are grafted on to a more familiar thriller plot.

It’s no coincidence that in both the films Farhadi has set outside Iran, the central pair are exes. Both The Past, set on the outskirts of Paris and filmed in French, and this one, made in Spanish, replace the complexities of a marriage with those of a former love, its resentments and secrets, and the grip of what’s gone. It’s as if the ordinary experiences of comfortable, urban European couples don’t yield quite the same drama as those of their Iranian counterparts—in these European stories, a particular set of built-in losses, conflicts, and disappointments is required to get things going.

Both these European films lack several layers of detail, which you only miss if you’ve seen Farhadi’s other work. The texture of everyday life is less precise—the peripheral fruit pickers and wedding guests in Everybody Knows don’t refract the central concerns of the story in the subtle way that, in earlier films, the crowds of people in banks or waiting for pretrial interrogations in Tehran do. The tensions created by class and religion enrich the story and inform every line and glance in A Separation, in which upper-middle-class Nader shoves Razieh, the woman he has hired to care for his father; she’s pregnant, and loses her baby that day. What follows is a mixture of contingency and fate; people’s pride, defensiveness, and fear are the same everywhere, and yet events play out differently from the way they would in any other place. Everyone involved is aware of the others’ automatic suspicions about them—Nader and his wife know they’ll be perceived as unprincipled, godless, irresponsible; Razieh’s unemployed husband, Hodjat, knows the other couple will see him as an inarticulate, aggressive creature.

In the Spanish story, by contrast, religion has no real political or social dimension, and class, rather than inflecting everything, looms in the foreground, giving the characters a fairly straightforward set of motives. Suspicion falls on the fruit pickers Paco’s wife employs and invited to the wedding. Laura’s relatives resent Paco and his vineyard’s success—he bought the land cheaply from Laura years ago—and Paco’s wife doesn’t trust Alejandro, the once-rich husband now in need of money. Whereas Nader and others of his class in A Separation only hint delicately that they look down on men like Hodjat (it’s a sign of Hodjat’s station that he’s a little more explicit about such things, complaining that the interrogator hearing their case won’t give him fair treatment because “I can’t talk like this guy”), here Laura’s family tells Paco straight out that they still see him as “the servant’s son.”

Likewise, The Past, though it alludes to the problems foreigners may face within France, doesn’t ground the families’ universal conflicts in the local context quite as elegantly as Farhadi’s Iranian films do. His scripts are usually novelistic in their intricacy of reference and their structure. Each tiny moving piece is interrelated. In Everybody Knows, the necessity of making things explicit means some deeper resonance is lost.

The exception is in the performances: The collaboration between Cruz and Bardem is the film’s greatest strength. It’s all the more striking given that Farhadi here can’t use any of his usual actors (Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti have each appeared in an impressive range of roles in several of his films). Farhadi is known for his rigorous work with actors—the months-long rehearsal periods, a legacy of his start in the theater, in which intimacy builds gradually, and scenes never intended to be filmed are improvised and repeated. Here, the layers of unspoken communication between Cruz and Bardem go far beyond what’s in the script: not just when she tells him a long-held secret or thanks him for his help, but in the casual moment early on, when, seeing her holding her niece’s little girl, he assumes Laura has had another daughter. When he mentions the girl’s father, she jokes, “Who says she’s Alejandro’s?” and they exchange a look that taps into a powerful undercurrent. This energy often buoys what might otherwise resemble a more generic thriller.

Farhadi may have developed his expertise in evoking closeness within strict bounds during his long experience of working around the Iranian government’s rules on what can be shown in cinema. In A Separation, for instance, he’d try to fit an unrelated man into a domestic scene, to fix the satellite or do some errand, so that it wouldn’t seem strange for the women to have their hair covered at home. (He has, though, pointed out in interviews that every place will impose its own constraints on a film—in Europe, you can mostly show whatever you please, but getting it financed is another matter.) Here, Cruz and Bardem never even kiss. It’s rare to see intimacy conveyed with so little reliance on physical contact.

The kidnapping in Everybody Knows can’t help but overshadow these quieter dynamics. By implying the presence of a villain with a deliberate plan, the film contrasts with Farhadi’s other work, which has—to great effect—made it very difficult to judge who is to blame. Previously, unexpected crises caused familial bonds to split under pressure, revealing the places they had always been weakest, and people’s resentments, hopes, and desires for revenge inflected their actions, with unforeseen consequences. Here those desires are far more nakedly expressed and even drive the plot.

Still, the film ends on a characteristically ambiguous note, just as a crucial conversation is about to begin. If Everybody Knows occasionally feels like an uneasy transition to a new phase, it may be because Farhadi is still figuring out what kinds of stories he wants to tell outside Iran; neither this nor The Past feels as rooted as his other work, and neither reveals as much about its setting. They’re stories that could take place anywhere. Yet despite receiving a lot of offers to direct in the United States, this is the closest he’s come so far to a sellout—the ticking-time-bomb plot, the cast of international movie stars—and it’s nothing of the kind.