Written and directed by acclaimed Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who made his international mark with the powerful drama A Separation, this mystery thriller is his second European project and continues to explore his fascination with the complexities and contradictions of human behaviour.
Laura (Penelope Cruz) returns home for a family wedding to the small Spanish village where she was born and brought up. She is accompanied by her teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra) and her young son, but her husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) has stayed behind in Argentina for business reasons. The family reunion itself is initially joyful but then the story turns dark and all sorts of secrets and long held resentments start to surface. They include the thing that “everybody knows” and which Irene discovers early in the story, that her mother and friend of the family Paco (Javier Bardem) were once lovers.
The first third of the film is a total delight, a bit of a holiday for both the eye and the spirit with the family reunion and the wonderfully colourful and joyful wedding. The exotic Spanish setting is full of beautiful visual detail in terms of the family home, the local bar, the streets and the landscape. And just as you’re starting to think “hang on. I thought this was supposed to be a thriller”, then the mystery element kicks in, right in the middle of the wedding celebration, when Laura goes to check on her children and discovers Irene is missing. A threatening text tells her Irene has been kidnapped. Frightened to go to the police because the text threatens to kill Irene if they do, the family attempt to raise the ransom money themselves.
As the tension rises, family secrets and long held grudges start to emerge, while they all cast around for ways to find the money. Alejandro, who flies in to help in the search for his daughter, has given generous donations in the past to the village church, so everyone thinks he is wealthy. Not so any more, it turns out. He is now unemployed and broke. Laura’s alcoholic father still feels he was swindled many years ago, when he sold his land to Paco, who has since turned it into a successful vineyard. And when Laura turns to her Paco for help, his wife Bea (Bárbara Lennie) is consumed with jealousy.
The change of atmosphere from the joy of the wedding to the abrupt and startling change of gear works well and initially holds the attention, as those skeletons start popping out of the web of close knit relationships among the family and the villagers. The solving of the mystery itself though does seem to take a very long time with the pace at times slowing to a crawl, then picking up again as a new development happens. And the actual final revelation, when it comes, is left unresolved, hanging in the air, disappointing and not totally convincing.
The strength of the film however is in the impeccable performances and the conviction the actors bring to their characters, as the complexities of their past are revealed. Cruz, still as beautiful as when she started her film career over 25 years ago, is luminous as Laura, frantic with worry over her beloved daughter. Badem is powerful as Paco, torn between loyalty to his wife and his need and desire to come to the rescue of the woman he once loved and perhaps still does.
There is a strong presence too from Ricardo Darín as Alejandro and, although she disappears from the story for a long time, Carla Campra brings a lovely vivacity to Irene. There are convincing and interesting supporting performances too from the rest of the cast, including Ramón Barea as Laura’s ailing and bitter father Antonio. The sight of him drunk in charge of a stair lift is one to remember.