Rarely has a filmmaker been so intimately tied to a place as two-time Academy Award-winning writer/director Asghar Farhadi
is to his native Iran. Since his 2003 directorial debut, Raghs dar ghobar (2003)
, six of his eight films have been set there, collectively mapping out the socio-political soul of the country, examining such socially-realist topics as divorce, crime, secrets and lies, and the themes for which he's best known; class and the importance of the past in the present. In 2013, he made his first film outside Iran, Le passé (2013)
, which was set in France, although it did feature an Iranian protagonist, and was thematically uniform with his previous work. His second such film, Todos lo saben (lit. trans. Everybody Knows It), is set in Spain, and although it finds him working for the first time with a relatively conventional genre template, it remains thematically very much a Farhadi film.
More a dark psychological study of people under extreme pressure than the kidnapping thriller as which it's been marketed, the film examines what can happen when intense pressure causes long-buried secrets to rise to the surface, how they can bring some together and tear others apart, often because of misunderstandings as to what is and what isn't common knowledge. However, although beautifully shot and exceptionally well-acted, Todos is easily the weakest film in Farhadi's filmography. Whereas his previous work is elegant, nuanced, and perfectly formed, Todos clumsily falls back on clichéd genre tropes and heavy-handed melodramatic plotting, with the narrative hinging on the revelation of a secret so obvious, I'm not even sure you can call it a plot twist.
Laura (Penélope Cruz
) is a Spanish woman living in Buenos Aires, who returns to her hometown outside Madrid with her 16-year-old daughter Irene (Carla Campra
) and eight-year-old son Diego (Iván Chavero
) for her sister's wedding. Her husband, Alejandro (Ricardo Darín
), a successful architect, stays behind in Argentina due to unexpected work commitments. Laura is particularly looking forward to seeing Paco (Cruz's real-life husband, Javier Bardem
), the son of the family maid, with whom she grew up and was in love for many years. Now married to local girl Bea (Bárbara Lennie
), Paco co-owns a local vineyard, having bought the land from Laura at a low rate, with Antonio (Ramón Barea
), Laura's bitter father, still resenting Paco's success with land to which he believes his family is entitled. That night, there is a power outage, during which Irene disappears. Shortly thereafter, Laura receives a text message demanding E300,000 and warning her not to contact the police or Irene will be killed. With the family under intense pressure, it doesn't take long until they are at one another's throats, with old animosities resurfacing, and distrust spreading between them. To make matters worse, Irene is ill, and without her medication, she will die.
As one would expect from Farhadi, Todos is aesthetically flawless. Shot by cinematographer José Luis Alcaine
, the film captures the sun-kissed Spanish countryside beautifully, with a gorgeous palette of rich browns, golds, and reds emphasising tradition and pride in the past. Drawing the audience's attention to the importance of the passage of time, the film opens by depicting the workings of a cathedral clock. However, the scene also strikes a more ominous note - the bell tower features a hole through which smaller birds can fly, but it is too small for the pigeon who also flits around the clock, trapping him inside; a visual metaphor to which we return several times. Also aesthetically impressive is the opening montage, which introduces us to a dizzying number of characters. Farhadi is at his most economical and leisurely in these quick-fire early scenes, drawing a complex web of blood relations and friendships (if this were a novel, there'd be a family tree included), whilst still creating a sense of intimacy and tight-knit community. It's also worth noting from an aesthetic perspective that although Alberto Iglesias is credited as the composer, the film only features one piece of non-diegetic music, which plays over the closing credits.
Given the nature of the story, a major theme is the weight of the past on the present - seen most clearly in how Antonio still resents Paco's purchase of Laura's land and how Bea believes that Paco is still in love with Laura. More specifically, the film looks at secrets, examining not only the importance of who knows what and how secrets can sometimes bring people closer, but also looking at the more complex issue that much of what we do in any given situation is based on what we assume other people do and do not know. Set in a small community where everybody knows everybody else, Farhadi gets a lot of mileage out of revealing that what some thought were secrets were actually common knowledge (hence the title).
However, it's in relation to secrets where the narrative begins to fall down. Farhadi uses the revelation of secrets as a structural principle, much as he has in his past work. Some of these revelations could be seen as plot twists (such as how Alejandro's construction business is doing), some not so much (why Paco and Bea have no children, for example). The film builds the tension reasonably well until about two-thirds of the way through, when it unveils the biggest secret/plot-twist, and the moment upon which the entire last act hinges. However, it's a revelation so telegraphed, when the scene came, I literally had to remind myself that the character involved was unaware of the information being shared. The actors play the hell out of the scene, but Farhadi is so self-serious about the profundity of the moment that it almost has a comic effect, like a magician too interested in the audience's reaction to a trick to notice he is screwing the trick up.
The film also strays into outright melodrama far more than in any of Farhadi's previous work. The above-mentioned twist is one example. Another is that there's a late-night thunderstorm (although, thankfully, no one has sex in front of a raging fireplace during it). The longer the film goes on, and the more twists and turns Farhadi throws into the mix, the more clumsy his script becomes, with the heavy-handed deterministic plotting lacking the grace and light-handedness of his previous work. The fact that Irene needs medication or will die in a couple of days is a particularly egregious example of this; a detail shoehorned into the narrative to arbitrarily create extra time-sensitive tension. It's a clichéd genre trope more suited to something like Law & Order (1990)
, that is, quite frankly, beneath an auteur of Farhadi's calibre.
Another issue is that the central conflicts aren't as well grounded in the milieu as in Farhadi's Iran-set work, where the issues explored in each film arise directly from that film's immediate environment. This was also a problem in La Passé, but it's more pronounced here. This could be because Farhadi is unfamiliar with the environment (like La Passé, he wrote the script in Persian, and had it translated), but whatever the case, in comparison to the nuance of his previous work, Todos feels like a step backwards. For example, the kidnapping plot, by definition, suggests a villain with a motive, whereas one of the more striking aspects of his oeuvre to date is the lack of antagonists, and the difficulty in assigning the majority of blame to any one person. Additionally, what often went relatively unspoken (class resentment in Jodaeiye Nader az Simin (2011)
, for example, or domestic violence in Darbareye Elly (2009)
), is here much more overt, with the characters presented in a more open manner, their prejudices, hopes, and desires more explicit.
I didn't hate Todos lo saben, but given the pedigree of the director, it did leave me disappointed. Farhadi is on his game aesthetically, and, once again dealing with issues of class and the destructive power of the past, so too thematically. The problem is the narrative. He piles so much on that I just stopped caring, as the plot lurched from secret/twist to secret/twist to secret/twist. There's nothing wrong with grafting one's thematic preoccupations onto a genre framework, of course; filmmakers as varied as Michael Mann
, David Fincher
, and Christopher Nolan
work within genre conventions, but are very much auteurs. However, when doing so, one must pay attention to the genre elements of one's film or they will be overwhelmed and seem like a poorly thought-out distraction, grinding against the themes rather than organically co-existing with them. That's exactly what happens in Todos. Beautiful to look at, and thematically interesting, the film is, unfortunately, let down by a disappointing narrative.