Early in the film "Everybody Knows," a character speaks aloud, for the first time, the phrase that lends this tale of mystery its title. It won't be the last time, either, that you hear those two words used in reference to something that's assumed to be common knowledge but isn't.
What's known and what's not known, and the ramifications of the latter becoming the former, are some of the abiding interests of the Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi, whose previous films (including "A Separation" and "The Salesman," both Oscar winners) have long revealed a fascination with secrets past and present.
History, for this filmmaker, never stays entirely buried, it seems. It rises to haunt the present and shape the future in shocking and irrevocable ways.
That's one heck of a metaphysical morale, but it never feels heavy-handed in this immensely watchable and thematically complex tale, which in some ways plays out like a deceptively conventional Agatha Christie-style whodunit. Opening just before a wedding in Spanish wine country, where members of a large extended family and their friends have gathered to celebrate, the film centers on the disappearance of a teenage girl.
During the boozy reception, on a night of rain and a power outage, Irene (Carla Campra), the slightly wild-child daughter of the protagonist, Laura (Penelope Cruz), is found missing from behind her locked hotel room door. A pile of ominous newspaper clippings about an earlier local kidnapping lie on the empty bed, next to Irene's still-sleeping brother (Ivan Chavero).
What follows is, on a superficial level, a criminal procedural of sorts, made all the more interesting by the virtual absence of the police, whose involvement the kidnappers have issued a dire warning against: Keep the cops out of this, or we'll kill the girl. Other than the psychological insights that are offered, under the table, by an especially sage retired police detective (Jose Angel Egido), the investigation is carried out entirely by the members of the sprawling clan and their neighbors, some of whom start to suspect an inside job.
One of those neighbors is Paco, played by Javier Bardem, the real-life husband of his co-star, Cruz, and who here plays her former lover (both characters are now married to other people, played by Barbara Lennie and Ricardo Daran). Although everybody knows Paco and Laura's romantic past, there are some other things they don't know.
When Laura receives a ransom demand via text, certain old ghosts, financial ones as well as interpersonal, rise from their tombs to wreak havoc. Paco, we learn, currently owns a vineyard that used to belong to Laura's family. Its patriarch (Ramon Barea) is said to have drunkenly gambled away his fortune, forcing the land's sale at a price well below its value. Class resentments and sexual jealousies flare up, clouding judgment and calling into question bedrock beliefs.
By one light, the enigma of Irene's disappearance is the least interesting thing about this drama. Don't get me wrong. Farhadi knows his way around a suspense thriller, as he demonstrated in "Salesman" and "About Elly." But like those earlier films, "Everybody Knows" isn't really about solving a case.
Rather, it's about the fissures that this case opens up in people's lives, not just the ones who are working to solve Irene's disappearance, but also those who are mere bystanders, either by accident or willful inaction. Every actor here is excellent, a remarkable feat considering that Farhadi, who speaks no Spanish and who wrote the original script in his native Farsi, directed his cast using interpreters.
Bardem and Cruz are particularly good, as they are called upon to render, over the course of a very long but engrossing 2-1/4 hours, a storm of emotions. Those emotions include joy, regret, anguish, hope, resignation and relief, as well as several other feelings that are impossible to name but instantly recognizable.
Is "Everybody Knows" as searing and devastating a film as Farhadi's best work? Probably not, but it is surely one of his most relatable.