Look what we’ve got here: Two married Oscar winners, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, costarring in a movie written and directed by Iranian master Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Salesman). How do you miss with that combo? Consider this Exhibit A. Working in Spanish for the first time, the filmmaker somehow allows the interweaving threads of his plot to get tangled into a jumble even he can’t satisfactorily unravel. It’s a damn shame.
The drama centers on a wedding, always an emotional flashpoint for families. Cruz plays Laura, the older sister of the bride (Inma Custea). Laura and her two children, the teenaged Irene (Carla Campra) and young son Diego (Ivan Chavero), have traveled from Argentina to an estate outside Madrid to attend the service and raucous reception. Her landowner father (Ramon Barea), is delighted to see his brood reunited; her husband, Alejandro (Ricardo Darin), has stayed at home. During the festivities, Laura runs into a former love, Paco (Bardem), a local winegrower now married to Bea (Barbara Lennie). It turns out that Laura and Paco were an item back in the day. Just one of the secrets that, well, everybody knows.
There is enough emotional tension, heightened by a thunderstorm and a power outage, to fuel several telenovelas. Still, Farhadi throws in more. Irene suddenly disappears. Kidnapping? Murder? Everyone is a suspect, including Alejandro, who shows up unexpectedly. A retired cop (Jose Angel Egido) starts snooping around and the plot twists itself like a pretzel, resulting in a clumsiness rare for Farhadi. It might be due to the fact that the director doesn’t speak Spanish — he wrote the script in Farsi, which was later translated. As the revelations pile up, we come to care less about who did what to who.
Cruz and Bardem throw all their talent and charisma into the mix; they’re a pleasure to watch. And Spanish cinematographer José Luis Alcaine lights the film to reveal a ripe beauty that recalls his work for Pedro Almodovar. Yes, the director is once again showing how long-hidden class resentments within and outside a particular family can fester into crime. And there’s nothing wrong with wrapping up that theme in a thriller. But this muddled melodrama offers surprises too easy to see coming. The machinations begin to smack of desperation. Don’t hold this against Farhadi. Everybody knows he’s capable of doing a lot better.