Writing and directing a suspense thriller that explores complex family dynamics is not an easy undertaking. Imagine doing it in a foreign language and country.
Two-time Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi accomplished such a feat with 'Everybody Knows', which opens in Washington on Friday and stars real-life couple Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem. For this project, the Iranian director spent two years living in Spain, becoming acquainted with the language and culture and painstakingly working to translate his dialogue from Persian to Spanish.
The result: A film that seemingly has nothing to do with Iran and that is made by the man who has become one of the preeminent faces of Iranian cinema.
"When you see it, you forget that it is an Iranian director. You just see a Spanish film and somebody that doesn't play with clichés," Cruz said over the phone from Spain. "The critics, nobody could say anything bad about that in our country, because you saw our culture really reflected there by somebody that understood it very well."
While not unheard of, it's rare for a filmmaker to write and direct a movie in a new language and culture. Abbas Kiarostami's 'Certified Copy' takes place in Tuscany and his 'Like Someone in Love' is set in Japan. Farhadi made 2013's 'The Past' in France. But unlike that film, which includes Persian and has French and Iranian characters, 'Everybody Knows' was shot entirely in Spanish and is devoid entirely of any Iranian context.
Farhadi, known for films that weave the drama of ordinary people's lives into tapestries that reveal humanity's complexity, won Iran's first Oscar for 2011's 'A Separation' and another for 2016's 'The Salesman', on the heels of the Trump administration's executive order barring visa holders from Iran and six other countries. Farhadi chose not to attend the awards ceremony, saying in a statement that it was "out of respect for the people of my country" and the others "who have been disrespected by the inhumane law". Instead, he had Iranian American engineer Anousheh Ansari deliver his acceptance speech: "Filmmakers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions. They create empathy between 'us' and 'others', an empathy which we need today more than ever."
In making "each film, you enter a new world and learn new things", Farhadi said in Persian by phone. With his latest, shot in a town northeast of Madrid, he experienced "how similar people all over the world are".
In 'Everybody Knows', Laura (Cruz) brings her children to the village where she grew up for her sister's wedding, but calamity overtakes the family when Laura's daughter goes missing, unspooling a web of secrets.
The kernel of the story first came to Farhadi years ago during a family vacation to Spain, when his daughter noticed pictures of a child plastered all over walls in the street. She inquired about the posters to their translator, who explained the child was missing. The idea stuck with Farhadi — a child's disappearance throwing a family into crisis — and five years ago, he began turning it into a film project. (He took a break in the middle to make 'The Salesman'.)
"Because the spark of the story, the starting point of the story came to me while I was in Spain, throughout all of those years I was thinking about, I thought that it has to happen in Spain," Farhadi said. "I was also traveling to Spain a lot, and while there, I felt their culture was emotionally close to" Iran's.
That similarity comes through in the film: The large family, the joyful and vibrant wedding scene, the hospitality and warmth.
But acquiring that cultural fluency required time and effort. Farhadi took Spanish classes (although not continuously, as he insists "I still haven't learned") and meticulously worked with a translator to turn his Persian script into a Spanish one.
"The work of translating wasn't like three or four times a week," he said. "For every line she translated, we consulted together and talked about each word, what it means, its origin, so I knew how the dialogue translated."
Each morning before filming, Farhadi reviewed a translator's recording of the dialogue for that day's shoot. His mastery of the material was so exact that he could detect if an actor had changed a word as small as 'de', meaning 'of', Cruz said. "I loved that because he's so present," she said.
"He's living for that movie, and he's like that in every project."
In one regard, filming abroad offers more possibilities for a filmmaker from Iran, where movies intended for domestic distribution have to get state approval. The influence of such constraints can be seen, in part, in the long tradition of Iranian filmmakers' use of symbolism.
But filming abroad can also be a difficult endeavor. "It's a different country, with a different culture than the country and culture I was born and raised in," Farhadi said. (While he's open to making another film abroad if the story calls for it, he said, he will mostly make movies in Iran.)
As he immersed himself in Spain, Farhadi realized he had to make changes to his story. Iranian culture is more mysterious and secretive about past indiscretions, and he came to know Spanish culture as more straightforward. The Spanish are more comfortable discussing such secrets, he said.
The film opens with church bells; the religious themes became more prominent as his familiarity with Catholic culture grew. "Much of the film is a story about two people colliding: He believes in God and the other doesn't believe, so it's a challenge between these two," Farhadi said in a mix of Persian and English.
On its surface, 'Everybody Knows' is a police procedural (minus the presence of the official police). But Farhadi said his aim was exploring how time affects us and our relationships with others.
"If we've done something 16 years ago, that responsibility still remains with us. It doesn't leave us," he said. "The past always comes back to haunt us."
He wrote 'Everybody Knows' with Cruz and Bardem in mind. The latter plays Paco, Laura's childhood friend who owns a vineyard and becomes an integral part of the tale. Filming was particularly intense for Cruz, who called the role the most challenging of her career; she spends most of the film navigating various states of desperation and anguish, and during the last month of shooting, she had a fever almost nightly.
"The doctors could not find anything wrong with me," she said.
"Of course, it's fiction, but there is a part of you, I think, there is a part of yourself that doesn't distinguish, and maybe it's that two percent that is going to affect you."
Cruz called Farhadi a tough but kind and honest director, one who would ask a lot of questions — which can be a rarity among directors — and inspire the actors by sharing a poem or dream he had the night before.
"It's a different language he uses," she said. "It's not a fake thing. It's not like a character that he plays."
He is also quite humble, Cruz said, which came through when a reporter asked whether his experience of being Iranian and making such a thoroughly Spanish film provided a lesson for the rest of us.
He's not one to offer counsel to others, he said.
"But one thing I experienced myself, and with each film I experience more, and I believe more, is if one makes a film with their heart, truthfully, the film will be better for it."
* Elahe Izadi is a pop culture writer for The Washington Post. Prior to joining The Post in 2014 as a general assignment reporter, she covered Congress, race and class issues and local news.