What Do We Really Know

“The taste of love and the taste of hate are everywhere the same,” said Iranian director Asghar Farhadi about his newest film, “Everybody Knows.” Filmed in Spain’s lush wine country, this is a rich, full-bodied melodrama. Metaphors abound. At one point in the film, Paco (played by Javier Barden) says, “wine has character and personality because of the passage of time.” However, some grapes fester on the vine.

In this fascinating jigsaw puzzle of a psychological thriller, Laura (Penelope Cruz) travels to her hometown for her sister’s wedding, bringing her children along, though not her husband. At first we are like the peripheral guest, trying to figure out the family tree of this novelistic, larger than life family. We are caught up in the wine-fueled revelry, but then the power goes out, a storm comes in, and we are plunged in darkness. Laura goes to check on her teenage daughter, only to find she has been abducted. We join the family as the emotions shift from elation to panic.

While he is a master of plot twists, Farhadi’s abiding interest is in psychological revelations. In an interview with the New York Times (Feb 3rd, 2019) he underscored how basic human emotions are everywhere in the world. We are more alike than we ever thought possible. There is “violence” [and] “kindness. And cinema is based on these two principles.”

The opening image of “Everybody Knows” is of ancient heavy gears grinding away, like the inexorable workings of a clock, or the mores and repression of a society. The image is at once literal and metaphorical. We can’t escape the passage of time, or the festering of class differences, secrets, unhealed wounds and resentments. And the secret that “everyone knows” in this film is clearly etched in the ancient walls of the church.

In terms of drama, tight pacing and plot, Farhadi has been compared to Hitchcock, There are many nods to him, with visual references to a staircase that reminds us of Vertigo, and images of birds, either trapped or, in a striking image, emerging from the face of a clock. As in his other films, such as The Past, A Separation, The Salesman, and About Elly (where there is also a disappearance), Farhadi is interested in the power of secrets and how we can’t avoid their inevitable pull and undertow. Secrets both bind and divide those who share them.

However, in this film, there is a thread that evokes the Buddhist idea of karma. Our actions have a way of catching up with us, even though we try to bury them, deny them, or forget about them. And the unacknowledged consequences of these actions haunt the present like ghosts. Silence and stillness have an immense power in this film. Farhadi, perhaps because of the censorship in his native Iran, has learned to speak quietly in his films. One interpreter of his work comments that being an Iranian filmmaker is a tightrope existence.  His films show empathy for every character and are devoid of judgment. We come to respect every perspective and our vision and understanding expands. Everything you see in his careful framing helps you envision what exists outside of it.

Some of this may come from Farhadi’s training in theater. He learned from Ibsen and Chekhov what he hadn’t learned from film, which was how to construct a story without a hero. Or, how to create a story where everyone thinks of him or herself as a hero. This training also gave him insight on the impact of being suspended between an established way of life and a new regime, giving him a way to depict the current tensions in Iranian society without eliciting the ire of the authorities.

Before filming Everybody Knows, Farhadi immersed himself in Spanish culture, living in Spain for two years and taking daily language classes. Some aspects of the story changed because of this. In the original script, Laura keeps an important aspect of her youthful relationship with Paco from her husband. While this sort of discretion made sense in an Iranian marriage, Farhadi realized that the Spanish were most open and re-wrote the script. The title changed as well. Originally it was to be called, “Nobody Knows.” As I reflect on this, both seem true. We think we know someone, but do we really?

A quick and discreet clinical vignette. I have been seeing a patient for over a year and I thought I really knew her. But she recently revealed a secret that stunned me. At this stage in my career, I am rarely surprised. But as I’ve been thinking about the impact of the secret, I’ve come to realize I didn’t know her.

There is a story that speaks to the power of Farhadi’s film on the viewers.  Farhadi saw his first film when he was a teen, in Iran, but he arrived late missing key elements of the story.  For days afterwards, he tried to reconstruct in his imagination the scenes he missed. “It made me feel that I was making the movie myself.”

His own narratives involve the viewer in a similar collaborative experience. “I don’t want the film to end for an audience. I want the audience to leave the film with it still in their minds, asking questions.”

This is a film that will stay in your mind, haunting you and making you question what you think you know.

Creativity
Subtitle: 
The Power of Secrets
Blog to Post to: 
The Art of Now
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What can an Iranian film maker teach us about ourselves? A lot.
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