“Everybody Knows” is a reminder that sometimes we just want to go to movies to watch pretty people screw up their lives. Maybe that makes it easier to bear when we inevitably screw up our own lives — I don’t know. I do know that Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem make this brooding suspense melodrama with tragic undertones more watchable than it deserves to be.
The director is Iran’s Asghar Farhadi, a two-time winner of the foreign-language Oscar (“A Separation,” “The Salesman”) making his second foray outside his home country (after 2013’s “The Past”) and his first without an Iranian theme. The setting is a village in the countryside of Spain and a wedding is coming up; Farhadi introduces a small army of characters with fluidity and skill. The focus is on the bride’s sister, Laura (Cruz), who has long been living overseas in Buenos Aires with her husband, Alejandro (Argentine star Ricardo Darín), rebellious teenage daughter, Irene (Carla Campra), and young son (Ivan Chavero).
Paco (Bardem), a winemaker and friend of the family, is happy to see Laura; his wife Bea (Bárbara Lennie) less so. It’s explained to Irene by a cute young local (Sergio Castellanos) that her mother and Paco were a hot number back in the day, when Laura’s father owned all the land in town and Paco was the maid’s son.
There will be more family secrets tumbling into the hazy Spanish sunlight, some of which you’ll probably see coming a kilometer down the dusty road. (“Everybody Knows,” and so do we.) Farhadi spends a good long time on the wedding dinner — a happy, crowded occasion that turns tipsy and absurd — before dropping the bomb: The teenage daughter has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom, presumably to be paid by her father, Alajendro, who has money.
Except that he doesn’t, and desperation turns to panic as the days roll on, threatening messages arrive by text, and the police aren’t called. In the tension, the bonhomie starts to crack; old grudges bubble up throughout the village like long-suppressed lava. Cruz believably plays Laura as an emotional wreck, and Paco, against everyone’s advice and his own better instincts, is moved to help in any way he can.
It’s easy to see what Farhadi, who also wrote the screenplay, is after here: A sort of sun-dappled Arthur Miller drama, with the past gradually laying claim to characters who thought they were finally free. (“The Salesman,” remember, was about a Tehran couple staging Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” until it bleeds into their lives.) Bardem’s Paco becomes an especially moving figure, a life-loving man of the soil who’s increasingly powerless to stop his own downfall. (Lennie is excellent, too, as the wife watching her man turn slowly away from her and waiting for that one step too far.)
“Everybody Knows” still plays like a minor entry in the Farhadi canon, though. The plot revelations have a pre-determined feel; you can sense the stage machinery beneath the movie’s cinematic bones. The oldest stories are sometimes the most iconic, the most biblical, but sometimes they’re just the ones you’ve heard before. Farhadi straddles the line, aiming for one and landing a little too close to the other.
You could do worse than spend two hours watching this cast go through their paces, melodrama and all. Almost all the women in Laura’s family are stunning to look at, as is Paco’s wife, and of course there’s Bardem, radiating raw sexuality like a bull on a leash. “Everybody Knows” is the kind of barely resistible potboiler the studios used to turn out by the yard in the 1940s and ’50s, with stars like Susan Hayward and Robert Mitchum driving each other crazy from repressed lusts. We should know better by now, and we do, but if you’re in the right head, what’s disaster for the characters is very nearly comfort food for an audience.
Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi. Starring Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Bárbara Lennie, Ricardo Darin. At Kendall Square. 132 minutes. R (language). In Spanish, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.