The latest family drama from Asghar Farhadi is an involving set of characters, with excellent performances from his actors. A film of subtle interactions, the plot itself isn’t quite as engrossing: a kidnap drama that isn’t terribly concerned with the kidnap victim, and therefore seems a bit disinterested with its own headline premise.
Penélope Cruz plays Laura, a woman returning from Argentina to her rural family home outside Madrid for her sister’s wedding. When her daughter (Carla Campra) is kidnapped at the event and a ransom is demanded, suspicions fall upon many people. Leading the charge to find her – in the initial absence of her husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) – is Paco (Javier Bardem), her former childhood love and the recipient of cut price deal on Laura’s father’s former vineyard land.
As one might expect, Farhadi does a wonderful job of establishing the family setting and the small details that give a sense of authenticity to the community gathering. Children crying and burbling away during wedding ceremonies, undercurrents of how each person is perceived financially or socially, past liaisons and truths going unspoken but “everybody knows”. At the centre of this are the performances of (real-life partners) Cruz and Bardem.
Although the film is structured as a kidnap drama, the central event is introduced primarily as a way to heighten the characters’ reactions and inject some sort of emotional urgency. The veils will fall when mental energy is being expended elsewhere. The acting across the board in this regard is very good. Cruz manages to balance purposefulness and hysteria to good effect. Her feelings on her family, husband and Paco come through when it might have collapsed into unrelenting sobbing. Bardem starts as the jovially stoic figure, and gradually communicates his growing pain at the loss of Laura and the family he could have had.
Following the actual whodunnit is where the film is lacking, and as a result ends in a slightly unsatisfying fashion. In particular, a retired police officer is brought into the story as source of advice for the group, who have been threatened to not go to the actual police, and he serves little purpose beyond being Detective Chief Expositor Jorge. He is parachuted into scenes almost at random to deliver hints of the narrative trajectory or explain theories with all the subtlety of a brick through the screen.
Given Farhadi’s visual hints to the kidnap perpetrators, it is clear this ‘mystery’ is not really the film’s main focus, but the thudding approach to it distracts from the more nuanced character work that he and the ensemble cast seem more interested in.
The complicated family dynamics are intriguing, the calibre of the acting is high, and visuals of the picture-perfect Spanish countryside are a beautiful backdrop to the story. There is plenty to capture here, but it is a shame the story mechanics were purely something to hang these characters off, rather than harmonising with them.