Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes we just click with the work of a particular filmmaker, and such is the case with Iranian-born Asghar Farhadi. From ABOUT ELLY (2009) to his two Oscar wins for Foreign Language films, the instant classic A SEPARATION (2011) and THE SALESMAN (2016), Mr. Farhadi has proven himself to be a terrific and distinct story teller. As an added bonus in this latest film, he works with cinematographer (and frequent Pedro Almodovar collaborator) Jose Luis Alcaine to take his visuals to a new level.
There is a playful and warm and familiar set-up before the switch is flipped. Laura (Penelope Cruz) has been living in Argentina with her husband Alejandro, teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra) and young son Diego (Ivan Chavero), and has returned to her hometown outside of Madrid for her younger sister Ana’s (Inma Cuesta, THE BRIDE) wedding. Laura’s husband Alejandro did not make the trip, and that plays a role deeper in the story. Hugs and kisses are exchanged amongst some of the most attractive people you’ll see on screen as family and friends are reunited … including Laura and local vineyard owner Paco (Javier Bardem), who share a romantic history from years ago. We quickly learn that Laura’s daughter Irene is a bit rebellious and free-spirited as she re-establishes her connection with Paco’s lovestruck nephew.
Slowly, we are introduced to other friends and family members, including Paco’s wife Bea (Barbara Lennie). These introductions are vital, not for the raucous and music filled wedding reception, but for what happens after. Having put her to bed earlier, Laura comes back to find daughter Irene missing and the only clues are newspaper clippings from a local child kidnapping years past. A most festive evening has been jolted into panic and dread. Soon Laura receives an untraceable text (I guess that’s how it’s done these days) asking for a huge ransom. It’s at this point, where secrets previously kept begin to surface.
The Farhadi trademark kicks in about this time. Although Laura is understandably distraught and disoriented, it’s clear the story is less about the crime and more about the interactions of the characters – resentments, the weight of long held grudges, and more of those dark secrets that begin to find the light. Everyone is a suspect, including Laura’s husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin, THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES) who shows up convinced God will protect his daughter. The worst traits of human nature are on full display as quick assumptions are drawn. There are lots of pieces to this puzzle and it’s dizzying fun keeping track.
Trust within the family and amongst friends is at the core of the story, and Mr. Farhadi makes solving the crime secondary to the actions and reactions of these folks who have known each other for so long. Melodrama abounds (in a good way) and there are some wonderful visuals, including drone photography from the wedding reception, and an opening sequence featuring the church bell tower and clock. This is the 5th film collaboration between real life couple Cruz and Bardem (the most recent being the disappointing LOVING PABLO), and both are exceptional here. Ms. Cruz offers up a gut-wrenching performance and Mr. Bardem is a joy to watch as he struggles with emotions too complex to verbalize. This is Mr. Farhardi’s first Spanish language film, but it’s clear his subject matter and characters are universally recognized.