The great Indian director Satyajit Ray once remarked that, in making movies for the entire world, his responsibility was to look at the particulars of his society and find the universal. This sounds like a good formula for storytellers who aspire to international viewership, but it would seem to break down whenever they work outside their native countries. Can a director truly understand the particulars of a society he or she doesn’t know intimately? If not, can his or her finely honed sense of the universal make up for this lack of understanding? Some filmmakers working abroad have used their outsider status to their advantage, producing work that speaks to feelings of alienation that people experience everywhere. The films Michelangelo Antonioni made outside of Italy (Blow-Up, Zabriskie Point, The Passenger) exemplify this; so too do the ones that Hou Hsiao-hsien has directed outside of Taiwan (Café Lumière, Flight of the Red Balloon).

Perhaps the most internationally recognized Iranian filmmaker presently working, Asghar Farhadi has now made two movies in countries other than Iran, The Past (2013) and Everybody Knows (2018). The first of these was shot in France but focused on an Iranian character; the protagonist, somewhat alienated from French customs despite being married to a Frenchwoman, poignantly reflected Farhadi’s own emotional distance from the setting. The more recent film, shot in Spain, contains no Iranian characters—or, for that matter, any character who might be perceived as an outsider. Farhadi has decided to look at people who could conceivably exist anywhere, and unfortunately this ends up working to the movie’s detriment. The film’s observations don’t feel universal, but simply generic.

Everybody Knows hinges on a few big plot twists, and while they keep the narrative compelling, they detract from the film as a whole: the turns feel plausible, yet they also exude a certain show-offy quality that take one out of the story. Moreover, the film is so dependent on its surprises that it seems to be treading water whenever it isn’t building up to a twist or watching the characters reel from one. The first half hour is practically a slog, as Farhadi lingers on scene after scene that does little besides relay exposition.

Laura (Penélope Cruz) is a middle-aged woman from a small town outside Madrid who’s lived in Buenos Aires for some time with her husband (Ricardo Darín), young son, and teenage daughter. At the start of the film, Laura returns with her family to her birthplace to attend a wedding. Farhadi leisurely introduces the nuclear family along with Laura’s sisters and parents, inviting viewers to bask in the lovely small-town setting and the interactions of the happy family. The writer-director also introduces another character, Paco (Javier Bardem), a vineyard owner who once worked for Laura’s parents, though he waits for a while to reveal Paco’s connection to the other characters.

Before the wedding, Laura’s daughter, Irene, gets to know a local boy who’s about her age. They ride around on a motorcycle (nearly colliding with Paco and his wife at one point) and have the sort of vaguely reckless good time one might find in movies about young people from all over the world. While the wedding takes place in a local church, the boy takes Irene to the church’s bell tower; on the wall she notices an inscription made by her mother and Paco when they were teenagers. Apparently the two were lovers when they were young. “Everybody knows about it,” the boy asserts, but it comes as news to Irene. The revelation of Laura’s past, as seen through her daughter’s eyes, is one of the movie’s stronger moments, tapping into a universal coming-of-age experience wherein one realizes his or her parents were once reckless youths like oneself. Yet Farhadi refuses to let the moment stand in on its own—rather, he makes it portend a bigger revelation to follow. (The remainder of this review will address some of the plot twists of Everybody Knows, so readers who want to be surprised by the film may want to check out here.)

During the wedding party that night, Irene gets kidnapped when she’s left alone in her bedroom. Farhadi leaves the abduction offscreen, keeping the identity of the kidnappers a secret. In fact, Irene’s abduction becomes known only when the family receives a text message from the kidnappers demanding a ransom and threatening to kill Irene if her parents contact the police. The film’s shift from benign family drama to thriller is the most successful of its turns, signaling a marked change in tone. Still, given how little the exposition weighs on the rest of the film, one wonders whether Farhadi couldn’t have gotten to the kidnapping sooner—it’s as though he wanted to lull his viewers into comfort for no other reason than to pull the rug out from under them. Regardless, Everybody Knows picks up speed as Laura and her family fret over how to handle the situation and the story settles into a familiar abduction narrative.

Farhadi ameliorates the sense of familiarity by bringing in more surprises. The first of these is that Laura’s husband isn’t the successful businessman that others presume him to be; the truth is that he’s been out of work for two years and lacks the money to pay the ransom. The second is that Paco is really Irene’s father, having sired her before Laura moved away. This would explain why Paco (who hasn’t had any children with the woman he married) jumps in to help Laura and her family manage the crisis of the girl’s abduction. He feels a sense of responsibility for Irene and cares personally for the girl’s safety. Farhadi also raises the possibility that Paco still longs for Laura and that he acts as he does out of devotion to her. Yet since the filmmaker reveals relatively little about Paco and Laura’s past relationship, their present-day moral dilemma feels theoretical at best.

Even worse, Farhadi fails to elicit interesting performances out of anyone in his cast—the biggest inadvertent surprise of Everybody Knows may be how little chemistry he generates from real-life spouses Bardem and Cruz. You can’t really fault the actors for this failing, as they’re playing dramatic conceits rather than fully fledged characters; they just don’t have enough to work with. The cast achieves some interesting moments when Farhadi explores the dynamics of Laura’s family as they prepare for the wedding and respond to the kidnappers’ threats, perhaps because the family dynamics are more tangible than the moral drama that surrounds them. In any case, these scenes keep Everybody Knows grounded and attention-grabbing; without them, the film would feel so indistinct as to be immaterial.   v