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Family Plot

Asghar Farhadi can't meld his trademark humanism with potboiler mystery in Everybody Knows.

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Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi has given us some of the most simple, most beautiful movies of recent vintage: 2017's The Salesman, 2013's The Past,2011's A Separation. His are films swelling with deep humanity, delicately wrought portraits of broken families struggling to right themselves, in which notmuch actually happens except our immersion in the lives of others. These are not plot-driven movies, but rather tenderly gripping exercises in coming to therealization that all families, all of us as individuals, are broken in our own ways—that there is no such thing as an unbroken human being, and that maybewe should just find a better word to describe ourselves and our families and our lives. "Works in progress," maybe?

Initially, Farhadi's latest, Everybody Knows—his first Spanish-language film—appears on track to be much the same sort of experience. Laura (Penélope Cruz)has just returned home to her small Spanish village, after living in Buenos Aires for many years, for her sister's wedding. Her husband hasn't comealong—work obligations have kept him home—but her two children, teen Irene (Carla Campra) and grade-schooler Diego (Iván Chavero), are having ablast with their cousins, and Laura is joyously catching up with her raucous extended family and hometown friends, who seem tocomprise almost the whole village, including local winemaker Paco (Javier Bardem) and his wife, Bea (Bárbara Lennie).

It's a bit tricky keeping track of who is who and who's related to whom and how everyone is connected, but it doesn't matter. That's kind of the point: that thedeep, lifelong interconnections between all these people make them inseparable, reliant on one another for favors big and small in unquestioning ways.Farhadi's exquisite, incisive talent for plunging us into a flow of affection, bickering and intricate, inextricable relationships seems to be in fine form. If thewedding sequence doesn't make you wish you were there partying with all these people, you might be dead inside.

But from there—the wedding is early on in the film—Everybody Knows takes a turn it will never recover from. Farhadi has indulged in more "plot" this timearound than he has before, but he flounders with it. It's as if he doesn't know quite what to do with this new situation, as if he has somehow blindsided andconfounded himself with it. Something transpires at the wedding—I shan't spoil—that morphs the film into a mystery. It's the stuff of a melodramaticthriller, a riddle to be urgently solved and an immediate trauma to overcome. And as Farhadi attempts to meld this sudden eruption of potboiler with his usualslow-burning humanistic drama, there is little space for either cinematic impulse to be satisfied.

The aftermath of the event at the wedding is the jumping-off point for profound cracks to start showing in the relationships of the people all around Laura, asfamily secrets bubble up to the surface and long-held resentments threaten to fracture the previous status quo. Yet there's little that's surprising or emotionallyrevelatory about anything we learn; indeed, the title of the film refers to the fact that there are few secrets among such a tight-knit group of people insuch a small community. That's a strangely anticlimactic stand, emotionally, for Farhadi to take, and it works against the mystery narrative as well, particularlywhen the resolution of it would appear to demand that there are secrets—open secrets—among these people that we are not made privy to. Theexplanation about what has been going on springs from nowhere; it's not specifically related to anything we've seen transpire and instead seems as if it could have been determined by a random card draw in a "Colonel Mustard in the librarywith a candlestick" sort of way.

It's so disappointing to see a filmmaker like Farhadi, who has been so powerfully grounded in authentic human feeling and experience in his drama before, toywith his characters the way he does here. He leaves us hanging, feeling not like we've lived a life with those on the screen, but instead scrambling for aconnection to them at all. His mystery undermines the humanity, and his humanity undermines the mystery. It's a sad place for us to be.

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