Cruz and Bardem's Cannes kidnap movie - taut drama or telenovela?

CANNES, France (Reuters) - A gripping whodunnit with barnstorming performances, or a “telenovela” melodrama: critical reactions were mixed on Wednesday for “Everybody Knows”, which opened the Cannes Film Festival.

Real-life couple Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem star in the Spanish-language movie written and directed by the double-Oscar winner Iranian Asghar Farhadi, about a Spanish village hit by a terrible crime.

Cruz plays Laura, who leaves her husband behind in Argentina for a trip with their son and daughter to a family wedding in the village where she grew up. Paco, (Bardem), her former lover, is the life and soul of the party, until things take a shocking turn.

“It is, of course, a thriller,” Farhadi told a news conference, adding that the genre plot was more of an “excuse” - a way to investigate the behaviour of people thrust into unthinkable circumstances.

Perhaps because of sky-high expectations for a film with A-list actors and a director revered for critical hits “A Separation” and “The Salesman”, reviews were mixed.

“Farhadi’s weakest film yet is still better than the vast majority of commercially made dramas in Spain, France or the United States,” wrote Variety’s Chief Film Critic Peter Debruge.

While it has strong echoes of Farhadi’s breakthrough film “About Elly” about a woman who disappears from a beach in Iran, “Everybody Knows” is, as Bardem said, “one of the most Spanish films a director could make”.

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“For me what he has done is incredible, being Iranian and making a Spanish movie in Spanish language and there are no clichés, it’s just incredible,” Cruz told Reuters.

The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw said: “the southern European setting has given Farhadi’s filmic language a new sanguine force”, while Variety’s Debruge took a dimmer view.

“Farhadi’s career is starting to look suspiciously like Woody Allen’s, as he jets off to make sunlit movies starring beautiful people in one European country after another. Globe-trotting is well and good, except one hopes the immensely talented auteur ... would use the opportunity of working abroad to be a bit more provocative.”

IndieWire’s Eric Kohn said “Everybody Knows” veers towards the “soapy”, with a plot twist “that wouldn’t feel out of place in a telenovela”, but the film’s “explosive star power” help it make “remarkable observations about the impact of class and status under dire circumstances”.

The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 8 to May 19.

Additional reporting by Hanna Rantala; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg