Trump, Iranian director and pesky journos collide on Cannes opening night
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Inevitably, Donald Trump’s widely anticipated decision to pull out of the landmark Iran nuclear deal came just as Cannes was showcasing an Iranian director, two-time Oscar laureate Asghar Farhadi, on the film festival’s opening night.
One of two Iranian filmmakers vying for the Palme d’Or this year (the US also has two), Farhadi famously declined to pick up his second Oscar last year in protest over the US president’s so-called Muslim ban. His latest feature “Everybody Knows”, starring the hottest couple in film with Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, gave the 71st Cannes Film Festival a suitably glamorous curtain-raiser on Tuesday night – only for America’s latest international withdrawal and some stormy weather to dampen the enthusiasm. The soft-spoken Iranian auteur will surely be invited to comment on Trump’s move during the traditional press conference on Wednesday, though he is unlikely to upstage Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s description of the US leader as a “pesky being”.
Aside from geopolitics and dodgy weather, Cannes’ ever-pesky press corps had other, “first-world” problems to deal with on Tuesday night. Under controversial new rules designed to preserve filmmakers from scathing critiques (at least until they’ve walked the red carpet), press screenings no longer precede the gala premieres – a change of schedule that has deprived film critics of a cherished privilege. For the curtain-raiser, this meant bored journalists had to sit through the festival’s opening ceremony before they could watch the movie and then race home to start writing. Adding insult to injury, the film was screened a couple of hours earlier in Paris cinemas (without the ceremonial preamble) – and under a blue sky to boot.
All of which was too much for a noisy group of Italian journos who sighed throughout the French-language ceremony, groaned once the film got started, and eventually left halfway through it. By that stage, the twists and turns in Farhadi’s latest psychological thriller had become somewhat predictable. It is hardly a spoiler to say the movie involves a child abduction, as is abundantly clear from the trailer. There are plenty of other, more dramatic revelations later on in the film, though none really spring a surprise – after all, “everybody knows”.
A crafty telenovela
Farhadi’s first Spanish-language feature follows a similar template to his previous work (including Oscar winners ‘“A Separation” and “The Salesman”), centred on the ricocheting ethical ramifications of a single incident. This one has all the ingredients – including, at times, the borderline silly twists – of a telenovela, albeit one guided by the director’s carefully crafted screenplay and driven by the explosive duo of its Spanish lead actors, supported by Argentina’s ever dependable Ricardo Darín.
Cruz stars as Buenos Aires-based Laura, a mother of two who returns to her native village in Spain for a family wedding, leaving her husband Alejandro (Darín) behind to look for work. It soon becomes apparent that there is special chemistry – and unresolved history – between Laura and local winemaker Paco, played by Bardem. The first half hour is all radiant smiles and sun-dappled leaves, climaxing in a protracted wedding bash that is suddenly cut short by a power outage and the child’s sinister disappearance. Incidentally, during the Cannes screening that bit happened just as America’s party-pooper-in-chief pulled the plug on the Iran deal.
This being Farhadi material, the movie shows little interest in finding the missing girl or the culprit. Instead, the kidnapping serves as a pretext to expose the cracks in family bonds, the complex interplay between characters and the repressed past that holds them together. A virtuoso collective performance by the extensive cast, led by its celebrity trio, ensures the film is eminently enjoyable. Cruz gets to play the full spectrum of emotions in a spirited performance, but it is Bardem and – in a smaller part – Darín who end up more moving.
Once again, Farhadi has produced an intricate tale of moral consequence and ambivalence. It is peppered with his usual social insight, with Europe’s hot-button migrant issue joining more familiar topics of class and gender. It is a shame, however, that the Iranian auteur hasn’t seized on his second foray abroad – after the French-language “The Past” (2013) – to try something really new. Admittedly, he has veered deeper into genre movies, but the family drama and thriller don’t always gel (and neither element is particularly interesting).
Abandoning the sober realism of Farhadi’s Iran-based work, “Everybody Knows” indulges in rich colours and glossy cinematography, bordering on a clichéd vision of rural Spain (think voluptuous women, sweaty labourers, juicy grapes and chunks of jamón lying about). It certainly makes for a pretty picture, though it seems Farhadi (who doesn't speak a word of Spanish) has lost some of his nuance and subtlety in the process.