* * * * (out of five)
I’ve come to realise that A Separation (2011), Asghar Farhadi’s fifth feature film as writer / director, is one of my favourite movies, top five, ever. I think about it all the time; I show it to students whenever possible; it sparks joy in me to remember scenes from it, moments, ideas. It helped me realise my sweet-spot as a viewer: intelligent dramatic character films that skirt the edge of being thrillers. Indeed, for me at least, Farhadi created a sub-genre, what I call (if just to myself) the “social thriller”. Lives don’t need to be threatened, and there needn’t be villains per se, but tension runs high, with the metaphorical bomb beneath the desk actually being social norms and customs, bending and breaking along with the patience of the characters. A Separation remains a perfect, pure example of this type of cinema; everyone is in great conflict with everyone else, yet no-one is really right or wrong. The stakes are impeccably high but the situations reflect, at most, a heightened realism.
As Farhadi’s clout has risen, along with his ambitions and resources, he’s ever-so-subtly upped the genre alignment of his scripts. The Past (2013) and The Salesman (2016) were still about people before plot, character before crisis, but they toyed with tropes absolutely absent from A Separation or, say, About Elly. Now, with Everybody Knows, Farhadi for the first time delivers a film whose log-line could fool the uninitiated into thinking they were getting Friday night fare.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth; Farhadi remains a humanist, a deep chronicler of human foible, and Everybody Knows, like his previous work, is a film of human beings in turmoil behaving realistically, understandably and with precise observation; they difference is, this time, the turmoil they face is more essentially and recognizably dramatic. They face a thriller trope, but they face it with the sensitivity of Farhadi characters.
I won’t reveal the trope; I saw this film knowing essentially nothing, and you should try for the same. Everything is surprising in a Farhadi film, and this one twists and turns like a frightened snake; there are secrets, lies, revelations and reveals, so much so that you could call this melodrama, but of the highest caliber, and performed, by brilliant actors, with straight faces and total integrity. Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darin and an ensemble of excellent Spanish actors go through the emotional wringer for us; it can be painful to watch.
Therein lies my only rub: Farhadi and his cast twist the screws so tight, on a story that I could relate to on such a visceral, personal level, that my pleasure center wasn’t being so much lit as stabbed. Frankly, I was so tense I longed for the film to wrap up, and wrap up happily, so I could breathe again. A director, whose intention is to put you in suspense, should not be criticized for doing so. It’s simply a paradox that here, he’s applied tension so well, you want him to stop.