Director: Asghar Farhadi
Cast: Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Ricardo Darin
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Asghar Farhadi’s latest film, selected to open the 71st Cannes Film Festival, is another of the Iranian director’s studies in troubled families and fractured relationships. Filmed in Spain and in Spanish, the filmmaker drafted in Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Argentine actor Ricardo Darin to headline his peculiar and not altogether successful take on the psycho-thriller.
When Laura (Cruz) takes her young son and teenaged daughter home to Spain for a family wedding, the happy occasion is interrupted by a kidnapping. The daughter is kidnapped and held to ransom for 300,000 euros. Laura’s old flame, Paco (Bardem), is keen to help out and play the white knight, but as the story develops, the personal toll and cost of the role will have its own dramatic effect on Paco’s live, livelihood and his marriage.
The opening half-hour is a vivid portrait of life in rural Spain; Farhadi’s extensive use of handheld camera and framing the actors up close lends an intimate mood. The amber tones and village locations, too, add to the air of beguilement, as we enter a world that looks deceptively inviting and without problems, the wedding doing a good job of masking petty resentments and old emotional wounds.
The thriller elements of the story are strangely lifeless, but the generic elements are really what Hitchcock himself referred to as the “Macguffin” and the meat of the story resides in how the kidnapping works as a catalyst for class conflict to arise. Bardem is superb as Paco, a man who exudes earthy masculinity and has worked very hard to attain all he has in the world. Once he gets involved in searching for Laura’s daughter, vultures begin to circle around him, intent on picking at him until there’s nothing left but a rotting carcass.
Farhadi’s latest shows us time as a great healer is a fallacy and does nothing of the sort. The characters prefer to bend the truth, leave things unsaid or bury their emotions and heads in the sand. As Bea, Paco’s wife, points out, not talking about issues and problems doesn’t make them go away; they simply fester and develop into malicious intentions.
Where the film is at its most riveting is not in the against-the-clock search for Irene, but in the nuances and complexities of the character portraits. Every character is complicated, their lives messy, their feelings and insecurities propelling the drama. Everybody Knows tell us honesty and being truthful can be unbearably painful and bottling everything up leads to great damage. It is in these themes and dramatic moments where Farhadi’s psycho-drama is at its most successful and intriguing.