Everybody Knows


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Spoiler warning: this article reveals key plot developments

The new film from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi begins with an image of the cogs operating a clock in an old church tower. The significance of this image is not difficult to decode; much of the film’s preoccupations are to do with the passing of time, and the key crisis points in the narrative arise as a result of issues that characters have presumed they had left in the past. But the specific location of this clock - in a church tower - which only becomes apparent a little later in the film, is a less immediately obvious pointer to another of Farhadi’s main themes in the film. As Farhadi explained to Filmmaker magazine, “When I started thinking about this story and developing it, I knew that the two main themes would be the passing of time and religion, or the relationship between human beings and spirituality. These were two things this clock tower could embody.”[1] 

Religion is central to the small Spanish village in which this story unfolds, but it is a religion of tradition rather than conviction. We see in the wedding scene early in the film that even the priest views the gathering primarily as an opportunity to appeal to the congregation to financially support the upkeep of the building, rather than offering any deeper spiritual meaning. But Farhadi’s noted theme of “the relationship between human beings and spirituality” enters the film via a different route, in the late arrival of a key character.  

As Everybody Knows begins, Laura and her two children are returning to the small village where she grew up, to gather with her family for her sister Ana’s wedding. They arrive and are immediately in the midst of bustling community, meeting a vast network of characters, including Laura’s former boyfriend, Paco. But a key character is not present; Alejandro, Laura’s husband, has had to remain at their home in Buenos Aires, apparently for work. The wedding goes smoothly, it’s a party to remember, but suddenly, after a suspicious power cut, Laura discovers that her teenage daughter Irene is missing. She soon receives a text message from Irene’s kidnappers, demanding a ransom.

It’s a set-up with all the ingredients of a thriller, but as in all of his previous films (including Oscar-winners The Salesman and A Separation) Farhadi is more interested in exploring what happens to the interpersonal relationships of those affected than he is in pursuing a thrilling plot. When Alejandro finally joins Laura and their son Diego, his silence and indecisiveness make for a marked contrast to the fraught discussion and action that has preceded his arrival. But this silence doesn’t seem dignified; it is a frustration to everyone, Laura most of all. When pushed, all Alejandro will say is “God will help us”.

This is a different kind of faith to the community-focused religion we have seen in the film so far – this is a spirituality of powerlessness, almost fatalistic in its outlook, and it is an affront to Laura’s practically-minded family. It is equally unfathomable for the audience; in contrast, Paco’s desire to do something to help save Irene, even to the extent of selling off his vineyards in order to pay her ransom, seems the much more grounded, even heroic approach.

But Farhadi wants us to consider where Alejandro’s conviction might come from. “I’m always working towards empathy”, he has said, “even with the characters who do wrong”[2]. We discover, as we probably already suspected, that Paco is actually Irene’s father. Paco doesn’t find this out until this crisis is happening, but more surprisingly, Alejandro has known it all along, and moreover this fact is the root of his faith. Laura told him of her pregnancy at a point in his life when he was at his lowest ebb, destroyed by alcohol and addiction. The news was like a lightning bolt, a God-ordained wake-up call that Alejandro credits with saving his life. And so he lives life with an understanding of his own helpless neediness, and believes God will again come to his rescue.  

In the end, these two men end up being the opposite sides of a spiritual coin that Farhadi is flipping with this film’s narrative. Alejandro sticks to his conviction that God will help, and refuses to accept Paco’s financial assistance. He is all faith and no action. But Paco acts anyway, selling his land to pay the ransom and risking his life to go and get Irene. He believes in nothing but action, the need to do something. The irony is that both men end up justified in their decisions - Irene is saved, and neither man has compromised on his position. But neither of them is any better off for it. As the film ends, Paco’s decision has left him completely alone, and penniless. Alejandro has got Irene back, but her final question to him makes it clear that there is now no escaping from the past for Alejandro. It must be reckoned with, and his personal, fatalistic interpretation of events will no longer be sufficient. As a character says at one point in the film, “not talking about things doesn’t mean they are resolved”.   

 

Paul Gallagher
GFT Programme Manager
March 2019


 

[1] https://filmmakermagazine.com/...

[2] http://reverseshot.org/intervi...


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