Everybody Knows: No Guiding Light, by David Bax
To a lot of people, the term “melodrama” carries a bad stench. That’s too bad because not only are so many examples of melodrama legitimate classics, it’s an adaptable format that can still surprise and hit us hard. For example, two of the best films of the decade so far, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan from 2014 and Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 Iranian drama A Separation are cunning modern melodramas. It’s a shame that the term has become, for some, a dismissive catch-all for movies with thin characters and preposterous, hammy narratives. But it’s even more of a shame that Farhadi’s newest film, Everybody Knows, is exactly the kind of movie those people are talking about.
Laura (Penélope Cruz) has returned from Argentina to the small Spanish town where she grew up to attend her sister’s wedding. Her husband, Alejandro (Ricardo Darín), has stayed home to work but Laura has brought her children with her, including teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra). It seems most of the town is either related to Laura or acquainted with her family and many of them come to the wedding, including her old flame Paco (Javier Bardem). It’s a hell of party until Irene goes missing and Laura begins receiving phone calls demanding ransom. The kidnapping, though, is only the wedge that drives open decades of secrets, resentments and hostilities throughout the family and the town, especially between Laura and Paco.
Farhadi executes Everybody Knows according to his standard aesthetic playbook. The handheld camera lends urgency but the handsomely contrasted lighting and the clean lines of the production design reinforce a bourgeois setting. He does add to his bag a tricks a number of diegetic drone shots from a camera among the arsenal of the wedding videographers.
Even that wide angle eye in the sky, however, can’t seem to contain the movie’s unwieldy, sprawling cast. At first, being unable to keep track of who is who and how they’re related to everyone else succeeds in recreating the actual experience of attending a large wedding. Soon, though, it begins to have a deleterious effect on the movie’s stakes. It’s hard to know how much power a secret has when you can’t even figure out which people it’s being kept from and why. And the finale was mostly deflated for me because, when the kidnapper was revealed, I wasn’t sure exactly who they were.
Like most of Asghar Farhadi’s work over the past ten years, Everybody Knows breaks the two hour mark. This is the first time, though, that one of his films has felt overlong. The kidnapping—quite a heavy catalyst—is just the beginning and, by the end, lives has been changed by the incendiary fallout and the grace of God Himself has been evoked. Still, all of it kind of just feels like a rather long way to go for some pretty basic soap opera stuff.