Though the principle of the obligation of charity includes everyone, that is not where it starts. Everybody Knows is a film about the inability of each and every member of the family and group of friends to reprove another because each has never learned to critique oneself. Instead, rebuke is expressed as resentment absent of love, as defensiveness rather than openness to an Other. It turns out that everybody knows the deep secret that only the father and mother of a kidnapped girl supposedly know, but no one knows how to engage in inter-personal criticism or conversation.
There can be no grudges underlying that criticism. There can be no resentment underpinning a reproof, such as the resentment that when Paco, the son of a servant, bought his land from Laura at a bargain-basement price, there is a deeply held belief amongst family members that the deal was rotten. In the end, however leaky the boat, however deep the wounds of the past, Asghar Farhadi’s films are ultimately about compassion and humanity.
Everybody knows this. We are commanded to do what we already know. However, Everybody Knows is about denial, is about ignoring what everyone knows, not just as a general commandment, but as a very specific piece of information that, as it is revealed, thrusts a dagger at the unity, at the harmony, at the solidarity of a Spanish family. (No spoiler alert is needed. I do not intend to reveal the hidden secret that everyone knows.)
Penélope Cruz (Laura) is a Spanish woman who has married an Argentinian and lives in Buenos Aries. The movie begins with her return after many years with her two children in tow, her frisky free-spirited impulsive sixteen-year-old daughter, Irene (Carla Campra) and her younger, almost dopy son, Diego (Iván Chavero). They return to a small village outside Madrid where her family lives. She is there to attend the wedding of one of her sisters, Ana (Inma Cuesta), to a very nice guy (Roger Casamajor) at the same time that she learns that the marriage of her other sister, Mariana (Elvira Mínguez) has fallen apart and the couple have evidently decided to split. (That turns out to be a convenient lie and a cover-up. The couple do eventually split in a much deeper way because together they threw an axe into the core of the family.)
In one opening, the wedding is a raucous, joy-filled affair attended by members of this large family and their friends in a picturesque village and filmed with photographic genius by Pedro Almódovar, cinematographer, Jose Luis Alcaine. The film has a second opening. Javier Bardem (Paco) is joyously picking grapes with his workers, grapes to be made into wine, not sacral wine, but wine to be enjoyed as an intrinsic part of celebrating life, wine that is truly holy. The spiritual in this movie may be identified with rebukes in a family, but it is not identified with asceticism and abstinence, though Ricardo Darín as Alejandro will testify that his life was saved when his daughter was born and he swore off alcohol. The narrative of the movie will testify to the falseness of the claim.
The wine is holy in the Jewish sense of making the physical world spiritual by making what seems mundane holy. Wine is specifically suited to this because, as Paco lectures to a group of students, wine improves rather than, like other foods, decaying with age. Wine gains in character and in personality courtesy of time. It gets better over time. Thou shalt become a holy people by saying a blessing over wine. Wine testifies that it is by raising the physical to the spiritual, not rejecting the physical, that we become holy. And the holiest moments of the film take place in the first forty minutes in drinking wine and celebrating at a very joyous wedding in the Spanish sun and when Alejandro, the abstainer lest he resume his alcoholism, has not yet appeared, not yet come from Buenos Aries.
Time is at the centre of the film, not as a Kantian aesthetic framework for framing our sensible experiences as successive moments, but as the phenomenology of time, as a clock in a church tower with a hole in the clock that no longer keeps accurate time. Instead, Laura and Paco unite in a race to play for time and prevent a tragedy at the same time as we learn that it was the last moment of ecstatic time that set the stage for the unfolding possible tragedy. For the wedding, which was a time of unbridled joy, turns into a fast-moving suspense thriller and a nightmare in which the past will erupt to haunt the present.
We know this before we actually learn of it when Laura’s high-spirited daughter, Irene, climbs the circular stair with Paco’s nephew, Felipe (Sergio Castellanos) who is clearly smitten. Irene in the first one-third of the movie instills in the audience the gravest sense of unease, of anticipation of disaster. Like all towers where princesses dwell, this one is haunted by secrets, first and foremost, the fact of Laura and Paco’s initials carved into the stone wall of the tower as a phantasm provide eternal proof that the two were once lovers. But this is a heartbreaking film, about two lovers who inadvertently broke each other’s hearts, about a ravaged and grieving mother cast in an existential angst over her missing daughter, and her own mother who also knows who the villains are. Paco as a take-charge man who, in the end, drinks suppressed and long forgotten memories rather than wine, as his heart is torn apart a second time and he falls apart into vulnerability even as he saves the day.
Instead of wine improving with age, the unresolved love and secret between Laura and Paco, the failure to open up fully to one another in the past, has eaten away at each of their spirits, so, in spite of the beauty of Penélope, the rugged handsomeness of Javier and the real electricity between them, everything dissolves into thin air. The mystery begins by trying to figure out the family tree and is sustained as we try to understand the role of Paco’s wife, Bea (Bárbara Lennie) whose part I never came to understand, except it is she who hired her nephew (?) to take drone shots of the wedding mélange as the drone retreats upwards and the family shrinks and its members become indistinct. Is she the eye of God, of a heavenly surveillance of the tragic scene? Her role is suspiciously sinister. I finished the film perplexed about her part.
The film begins in celebration. In contrast, in the Jewish nation, we begin by mourning our losses. We begin with Yom HaZikaron, the Memorial Day for the soldiers who fell in battle for the nation and the civilians who lost their lives to terrorists. Only then does Yom HaAtzmaut follow. We begin, rather than end, with a broken heart. Self-criticism and critique of others provide the opportunity to repair the world. Only when we have paid the cost of such repairs, only when we understand why the repair was necessary, why the sacrifice was made, are we entitled to celebrate.
When Everybody Knows begins with such enormous celebration, such overwhelming joy, the sense of creeping disaster, of what is festering behind that joy, begins to haunt us so that when the disaster begins to unfold, we are tossed to the ground. Only when the order is reversed in real life, can we move on to repair the world.
With the help of Alex Zisman