Everybody Knows

* * * * (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.

The Salesman

thumb_5722_film_poster_big**** (out of five)

Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi just won the Foreign Language Feature Film Oscar for The Salesman, another of his particular brand of contemporary social thrillers – a term of my own devising for his specific style. His best film, A Separation, won the same award five years ago. Together with The Past (2013) and About Elly (2009), the four films constitute a staggeringly exciting recent body of work. He is unquestionably one of the finest, most dynamic, most urgent auteurs working in modern cinema.

All four of these films take place immediately. Things are happening, now, with no time to lose, and the stakes are high. Often told over two or three days, with a smallish cast (he has an ensemble of actors who re-appear throughout the quartet), the films are contemporary dramas but with the effect of thrillers: they are all highly suspenseful, tense and grippingly immersive. There is always mystery and misdirection; there are plentiful secrets and lies. And there are the cultural, political and religious constraints of contemporary Iran, pressing down on these characters and, for those of us non-Iranians, providing another layer of relative ambiguous tension.

The characters themselves share, across the four films, specific qualities: they are urbane (from Tehran overwhelmingly), educated, smart, young (I would suggest most are around 30, as an aggregate) and for the most part very attractive. This is perhaps the one level of artificiality in his films, but then, it occurred to me – perhaps in Iran, to be an actor one must be attractive? It certainly helps in countries with far bigger film industries.

The subject of being an actor in Tehran is directly addressed in The Salesman, which stars Shahab Hosseini (A Separation and About Elly) and Taraneh Alidoosti (Elly in About Elly) as Emad and Rana Etesami, who are playing Willy and Linda Loman in what appears to be a professionally-mounted production of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman in Tehran. At the start of the film, while they’re in the final week or so of rehearsals, their apartment building suffers a semi-collapse, and they are forced to move, quickly and without the luxury of time to look around, into the first apartment they can grab, which happens to have a sordid history. That history cuts into their lives in a particular way, and, once it does, the film’s “thriller” aspects kick up a gear, and, as always with films by Farhadi, choices of monumental emotional and moral substance need to be made.

The stunningly handsome Hosseini (he reminds me of Colin Farrell, but better looking) won Best Actor at this year’s Cannes for his work here and he deserved it mightily, even if his volatile black hair is a little too awesome during the film’s gripping, real-time third act. Alidoosti, who necessarily held her cards as close as one can to one’s chest in About Elly, gets to be far freer with her emotions here, even if her character Rana can only let them out when she’s on stage as Linda Loman. The Death Of A Salesman scenes are like lightening in a bottle, and there is no doubt that the Etesamis are meant to be read as fantastic stage actors. This is less of an ensemble than Farhadi’s other Big Three, but the work of all the supporting cast is excellent. Farhadi demands realism and his actors inevitably deliver; there’s nary a false note in any of the performances in any of his films, even from the children, who feature less here than in the previous work.

Despite some story elements that push it even further than A Separation and The Past into the thriller realm, The Salesman is more contemplative and in many ways smaller, more contained. It’s probably most evocative of About Elly, even though it’s obviously a more mature work about more mature people with, well, more mature baggage. Of his four films, I rank it number three, but it still towers above eighty-eight percent of the films that reach our silver screens. Don’t miss it, and if you haven’t seen his other films, correct that error now.

Oedipal Wrecks

Child’s Pose ****1/2 (out of five)

pozitia_copiluluiThe trouble with reviewing a film as good as Child’s Pose is to revel in superlatives and over-hype the poor thing. Know straight off then, that Calin Peter Netzer’s third feature is astonishingly written (with Razvan Radulescu), shot and performed. It’s sensational.

Luminita Gheorghiu, in the performance of the year thus far, plays Corelia, a wealthy and well-connected Bucharest society architect who finds renewed purpose when her too-adored son is involved in an accident and she throws herself into cleaning up the dreadful mess.

Netzer’s story continually telescopes, at first powerfully revealing the endless everyday corruption inherent in Romanian (and, by implication, most) society, then focusing its gaze to issues of class, family, and ultimately the painfully intimate bond between mother and son. This latter theme is dealt with on a level of universal honesty and unforced pathos such that I have never seen before; the scenes between Gheorghiu and Bogdan Dumitrache are intensely true: writing, direction and performance all borne of perfect observation turned into perfect dramatic art.ch02

Netzer uses hand-held camera, no music score and a very abbreviated time period (the film takes place over about four or five days) and achieves an almost documentary feel, which would have been impossible were his entire ensemble not so brilliant. This is naturalistic acting at its finest and filmmaking at its least bombastic.

Child’s Pose is, essentially, a thriller, but, like the recent films of Asghar Farhadi  – A Separation and The Past – it offers a depth of meaningful, emotional engagement far beyond your average thriller, and, indeed, far beyond your average “straight drama”. Its thrills are thrilling, but its drama is intense, moving, and extremely rewarding.maxresdefault