DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new movie "Everybody Knows" stars Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem. It's made by the Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, who won Oscars for his films "A Separation" and "The Salesman." Our critic at large John Powers says it's good, but it has limitations compared to another foreign film currently up for an Oscar.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: When people talk about art, they often argue over whether individual works can be truly universal. One who thinks they can is Asghar Farhadi, the gifted Iranian filmmaker who in recent years has won foreign film Oscars for both "A Separation" and "The Salesman." As he puts it, the taste of love and the taste of hate are everywhere the same. That belief in universality gets put to the test in his latest film, "Everybody Knows," a tale of love and crime that find him working for the first time in Spain with a cast of Spanish-speaking stars. Farhadi has a real knack for domestic dramas that unfold with the suspense of psychological thrillers, and that's just what you get here.
Penelope Cruz stars as Laura, a Spaniard who lives in Buenos Aires with her architect husband Alejandro, played by the famous Argentine actor Ricardo Darin. As the action begins, Laura and her two kids are returning to the Spanish village where she grew up to attend the wedding of her sister. There she meets her now-married old flame Paco, played by Javier Bardem with more than a smidgen of ham.
Paco is a bull of a man who owns the wine-making estate that once belonged to Laura's family. And we wonder - do the two still feel the same old spark? Everything seems cool until the drunken wedding party when Laura's teenage daughter gets kidnapped, a ransom is demanded and Alejandro - who everybody knows is rich - has to jet north from Argentina. The abduction tears away all the good feelings, exposing years of male rivalry, sibling squabbles, financial resentments and clandestine yearnings. Laura, Paco, Alejandro and the others must grapple with moral issues and the weight of the past. Everybody knows something, even if what they know isn't true.
When the picture premiered at Cannes last May, it was compared unfavorably to competition hits like "Shoplifters" and "Cold War." But context is all. If you put "Everybody Knows" next to the movies coming out on a normal week like this one, you'll be delighted by its old-fashioned Hollywood virtues - a seductive setting; a lively, if messy story; and a cast of sexy, talented actors who are fun to watch, even if Cruz has to cry a bit too much.
As ever, Farhadi shines at creating characters whose emotional complexity helps disguise his penchant for arbitrary plot twists. If that disguise proves less effective here, it's largely because Farhadi is working in a country, in a language that isn't his own. Although the movie doesn't feel touristic, he spent two years living in Spain before shooting. It does feel thin next to "A Separation," which is rooted in a home country whose daily lives and social issues Farhadi knows in his bones. Every scene of that film brims with interesting textures and details of Iranian life. This isn't true of "Everybody Knows," which feels less universal than generic.
Its limitations become clearer if you put it alongside "Cold War," a best foreign film nominee whose Polish-born auteur, Pawel Pawlikowski, made the Oscar-winning "Ida." Pawlikowski tells a story based on his parents' tortuous relationship. We follow the roller coaster ride of the romance between Wiktor, a detached-seeming jazz composer, and a passionate woman singer named Zula. Their love carries them from late '40s Poland, where communism was taking a firm grip, to '50s Paris and then back into Eastern Europe's bleak 1960s. "Cold War" is an immaculately crafted film set in exquisite black and white and marvelously acted, especially by its incandescent lead actress Joanna Kulig, whose mercurial performance recalls Jeanne Moreau. At 84 minutes, this is the rare movie that could be longer. Indeed, if Farhadi's film is a slab of Brie oozing ripe emotion, Pawlikowski's is as condensed and richly flavored as a perfectly sliced sliver of finally aged Parmesan.
"Cold War's" richness comes from being steeped in detail. This is both personal - the lovers are even named after Pawlikowski's parents - and cultural, from the wailing Polish folk music that begins the film, to the party bureaucrats who transform art into red propaganda, to the smoky Parisian nightclubs where Wiktor finds liberation and Zula sinks into uprooted alienation. From beginning to end, "Cold War" demonstrates what "Everybody Knows" does not. The road to the universal actually begins with the specific.
BIANCULLI: Critic-at-large John Powers discussed the new films "Cold War," which has been nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film, and "Everybody Knows." The Oscars will be broadcast on February 24th.
On the next FRESH AIR, athletes and the strange science of recovery. Christie Aschwanden talks with Terry about how the human body recovers from injuries. She's tried the latest recovery products, from electrolyte drinks and compression sleeves to foam rollers, cryotherapy and float tanks. And we talk with Adam Savage, host of MythBusters Jr., about engineering, science and blowing stuff up. Hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF ODAIR ASSAD AND SERGIO ASSAD SONG, "SCARAMOUCHE: BRAZILEIRA")
BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Challoner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.