Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben)


Mother comforts daughter.

(2018) Drama (Focus) Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darin, Eduard Fernandez, Bárbara Lennie, Inma Cuesta, Elvira Minguez, Ramón Barea, Carla Campra, Sara Sálamo, Roger Casamajor, Josė Ángel Egido, Sergio Castellanos, Iván Chavero, Tomás del Estal, Imma Sancho, Paco Pastor Gómez, Jaime Lorente, Mari Carmen Sánchez, Carla Campra. Directed by Asghar Farhadi

 

When a family gets together for an occasion (a wedding, a christening, a holiday etc.) it’s usually a joyful occasion. Oh sure, there may be some relatives you’re not keen on seeing like alcoholic Uncle Al, creepy cousin Wendell or Grandpa the conservative political troll but by and large you’re happy to be around those who have blood ties. Then again, they all know where the bodies are buried – sometimes literally.

Laura (Cruz) lives in Argentina now but she returns to her rural Spanish village to attend her sister Ana’s (Cuesta) wedding to Joan (Casamajor). She has brought with her teen daughter Irene (Campra) who is just getting into that rebellious age, her younger son Diego (Chavero) but not her successful husband Alejandro (Darin) who has a successful business to attend to. Also in attendance are bitter patriarch Antonio (Barea) who gambled and drank away most of the land the family once owned, son of a former servant Paco (Bardem) who bought part of that land and turned it into a thriving vineyard, and Paco’s wife Bea (Lennie) whose childlessness is a source of much village speculation.

The night of the reception is greeted with a violent thunderstorm which knocks out the power. As the evening begins to wind down, Laura goes upstairs to check on her children – and finds Irene missing with newspaper clippings of a local kidnapping that ended up tragically scattered on the bed. This is followed up with a texted ransom demand for an exorbitant amount of cash that as it turns out, Laura and Alejandro do not have – her husband being not quite as successful as the family was led to believe.

The fact that Paco and Laura were once lovers until Laura dumped him was no secret – everybody knows this, but not everybody knows…well, the real reason Irene was kidnapped and we won’t get into that here. The kidnappers are very clear that the police should not be called if Irene is to return home alive but they do consult with a retired detective (Egido) who suspects an inside job and in effect tells them to “trust no-one.”

On the surface it sounds like a standard potboiler but when you have a cast like this one and an Oscar-winning director as Farhadi is you can depend on good things happening. Cruz and Bardem are two of the best in the business and Cruz delivers a powerful emotional performance, alternately anguished over her child’s kidnapping and forlorn over what might have been with Paco. Bardem has a bit of a hangdog look but his inner decency stands out from the venality of much of the rest of the family.

Beautifully photographed in idyllic sepia tones, the movie manages to move at the same pace as the rhythms of country life which is a bit odd for a movie with so many thriller elements but works nonetheless. Some American viewers might find this maddeningly slow-paced but most avid cinephiles won’t have a problem with it. Yes, there are twists and turns and none of them are particularly remarkable but the thriller side is pretty effective. The reveal of the identity of the kidnappers though is a bit of a disappointment and never really makes much sense. Me, I liked the view of rural Spanish life more but that’s just the kind of guy I am.

Sometimes a movie can be forgiven its flaws because of the reputation of those behind the camera and the performances of those in front of it. This is such an occasion. Farhadi, who has some amazing films to his credit (including A Separation and The Salesman) didn’t deliver one of his best works here – and keep in mind this is his first Spanish-language film, a language he does not speak. This isn’t for everybody and that and it’s somewhat anti-climactic ending kept it from a perfect score but it’s still a worthwhile viewing for cinema lovers and casual movie fans alike.

REASONS TO SEE: Bardem and Cruz deliver outstanding performances. The film gives a nice glimpse at Spanish rural life. While the twists and turns don’t rewrite the book, they are nonetheless effective
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie drags a little bit in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bardem and Cruz, who play former lovers here, are actually married in real life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ransom
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Los Reyes

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The Salesman (Forushande)


Taraneh Alidoosti peers into a room that no longer feels safe to her.

(2016) Drama (Cohen Media Group) Taraneh Alidoosti, Shahab Hosseini, Babak Karimi, Farid Sajjadi Hosseini, Mina Sadati, Mojtaba Prizadeh, Sam Valipour, Emad Emami, Mehdi Koushki, Maral Bani Adam, Shirin Aghakashi, Ehteram Boroumand, Sahra Asadollahe. Directed by Asghar Farhadi

 

They say life imitates art, although it is more accurate to say that art imitates life far more often. On the rare occasion when the reverse is true it can be much more devastating than you might think.

Emad Etesami (S. Hosseini) is a teacher of Western literature in an Iranian high school (or its equivalent). Most of his students are practical jokers and a bit on the unruly side. His job is just that – a job. His passion is the stage and his drama club is producing Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman with Emad in the lead role of Willie Loman and Emad’s wife Rana (Alidoosti) as Linda Loman, Willie’s wife.

When their apartment complex becomes uninhabitable due to structure damage, Babak (Karimi), one of their cast members, offers an apartment in a complex that he owns. He’s a bit reticent to talk about the previous tenant, who left suddenly, other than to say “she had too many visitors.” What that cryptic remark meant soon became apparent when they discover that the woman in question had left some possessions she refused to pick up…and that she might have been entertaining men in the oldest profession sense of the word.

But that thought takes a bad turn when one night while Rana is alone and in the shower she buzzes in someone she assumes is her husband. Instead, it is someone who leaves her with a concussion and several bruises. Rana denies she was sexually assaulted but she is definitely reacting as if she was. She becomes paranoid, frightened. She becomes less able to leave the apartment even after she is cleared medically to do so. The relationship between Rana and Emad becomes strained. He becomes obsessed with finding out who committed the assault on his wife. He feels guilty for not having protected her. That obsession will lead to a confrontation that will test his basic decency and moral center. In other words, the Tennessee Miller play is being enacted in his life.

This is the most recent (as of this writing) winner for the Foreign Language Film Oscar and the second such award that Farhadi has won (the first was for A Separation). It’s fair to say that he is one of the best film directors in the world at the moment. Like some of his previous films, he takes an ordinary couple and throws something extraordinary into their lives.

It is never fully disclosed whether or not Rana suffered a sexual assault; whatever happened takes place off-screen and we’re left to wonder, as Emad does, whether or not she was raped. Certainly we are led in that direction through most of the film. Emad changes; he becomes obsessed, enraged and occasionally lashes out at Rana. Rana, for her part, becomes paranoid and withdrawn. While our sympathies lie with Emad about midway through the movie (Rana takes out a lot of her anger on him) we watch as our sympathies slowly change sides until Rana becomes the more rational of the two.

We see how bureaucrats in Iran regulate the arts, calling for slight changes in the Miller script that portray the West as decadent and corrupt. We also see how people are careful about expressing what they want to as there are always secret police around. It is the casual fear and paranoia that are part of the daily lives of Iranians that was the most poignant takeaway for me from this film.

Both Alidoosti and Hosseini are big stars in Iran. They are unlikely to ever cross over to American stardom; the current political climate forbids that. They give performances that while not necessarily Oscar-worthy are certainly worth including in that conversation. Alidoosti strikes me as the kind of actress who could easily be headlining major franchise films in a perfect world. This world is not perfect; it was never perfect and Arthur Miller knew that. The imperfect world is what crushed Willie Loman in the first place. Both Rana and Emad are setting themselves up to be crushed by that same world; whether they survive or not is immaterial. What does succeed is that not only do we see the cultural similarities between Iran and the West but we inadvertently become closer to the Iranian people by doing so.

REASONS TO GO: The performances of Alidoosti and Hosseini are strong. There’s some insight here into the repressive regime in Iran. The effect of the assault on all involved is realistically depicted.
REASONS TO STAY: The film moves at something of a slow pace.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a brief bloody image and adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farhadi chose not to travel to Hollywood to participate in the 2017 Academy Awards due to the travel ban that was enacted by the United States against seven Muslim nations including Iran. When the film won, Anousheh Ansari read a statement by the director explaining his absence.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Irreversible
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Wilson

The Past (Le passé)


Berenice Bejo awaits the arrival of her ex.

Berenice Bejo awaits the arrival of her ex.

(2013) Drama (Sony Classics) Berenice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa, Pauline Buret, Elyes Aguis, Jeanne Jestin, Sabrina Ouazani, Babak Karimi, Valeria Cavalli, Aleksandra Klebanska, Jean-Michel Simonet, Pierre Guerder, Anne-Marion de Cayeux, Eleonora Marino, Jonathan Devred, Sylviane Fraval, Yvonne Gradelet. Directed by Asghar Farhadi

Any relationship but particularly a marriage is built on trust. Without it, the relationship withers and dies much as a rose in a glass vase without any water. That trust, once broken, can turn back savagely on the offending party without warning. The things we do in life don’t occur in a vacuum – they affect those around us in addition to ourselves.

Marie (Bejo) waits in de Gaulle airport in Paris for her ex-husband Ahmad (Mosaffa) to arrive from Teheran. Four years previously, he had walked out on her, leaving her with two daughters from an earlier relationship. Now, at last, he’s going to sign their divorce papers leaving her free to marry her current boyfriend.

That boyfriend, Samir (Rahim), comes with baggage of his own. He has a young son Fouad (Aguis) who is working out his own issues and a wife, Celine (Klebanska) who has been in a coma for eight months. Marie insists Ahmad stay with her and the three kids (Samir will stay in his old apartment above his dry cleaning business) and hopefully, have a heart-to-heart with her older daughter Lucie (Burlet) who has been at odds with her essentially since Samir came into her life. She hates Samir with a venom that only a teenage girl watching her mother remarry can possess.

It turns out that the adult Lucie is closest to in the entire world is Ahmad and it’s no wonder; Ahmad is gentle, kindly and compassionate. At first glance it’s hard to reconcile this man with one who would give up on a woman and her two daughters and walk away, but that’s exactly what he did. Clearly there’s more than meets the eye going on here.

Ahmad finds himself in a household that is far more fragile than it appears and it will only take the slightest of touches to knock the whole thing down and of course his presence is the catalyst for that to happen. He tries to reconnect with his family and friends from the Parisian Iranian community but finds himself being sucked into the fall-out of the war between Marie and Lucie. As it turns out, the events that occurred eight months previously have left a pall hanging over the house and those who live in it, one that will have devastating consequences for all of them.

This isn’t always a movie that’s easy to watch. Farhadi excels at portraying people in everyday situations that are turned on their ear by extraordinary mistakes – the sort we are all capable of making in a moment of pique or in a fit of anger. Wisely, Farhadi utilizes very basic storytelling techniques – there are no flashbacks, no flash forwards and curiously, no music on the soundtrack. What you see and hear is unembellished by trickery or point of view – this is the events as they happen as they are perceived by those they happen to.

Bejo, an Oscar nominee for The Artist, is sensational here. Marie is hanging on by her fingernails and although she isn’t a particularly nice person most of the time – she is manipulative and has an explosive temper – she is capable of great tenderness when the mood takes her. Bejo makes Marie complex and in many ways, unknowable but not nearly to the same degree as Ahmad. Ahmad is quite the enigma, rarely betraying his feelings (other than acute annoyance or distinct joy) and we know as much about him when the movie ends as we do when it began. That’s not an easy role to carry, but Mosaffa makes him likable enough that we maintain our identification with him.

The movie at 130 minutes is probably a good half hour too long. The younger daughter is extraneous to the story as is to a great degree Fouad, although he serves as something of a canary in a coalmine letting us know that All Is Not Well In This House. The performances here are raw and at times breath-taking, even from the juveniles.

It’s not the kind of movie that hits you over the head with grand revelations but instead kicks you in the shin with insights that will cause some reflection and eventually take your breath away once you’ve given it some thought. While I can’t really recommend this to everybody – some of it is really intense and for those who have been in a relationship issue similar to the one here it might bring back some really unpleasant feelings. However, this is a solid, well-made film on a subject that is often treated with more titillation than with any consideration to the real life consequences that those kinds of choices often leave behind for those caught in the crossfire.

REASONS TO GO: Intense and gripping. Captures the effects of infidelity on the lives of those not directly involved.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a bit too long. Youngest daughter was superfluous.  

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes here are pretty mature and at times can be fairly intense. There is also some brief foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farhadi doesn’t speak French and directed the movie through a translator.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Separation

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Loosies