At the beginning of Asghar Farhadi’s “Everybody Knows,” everybody is getting ready for a big wedding in a small town in Spain. Most of the guests don’t have far to travel, but Laura (Penélope Cruz) has come from Argentina with her two children. It’s a big deal. Laura — whose husband, Alejandro (Ricardo Darín), wasn’t able to make the trip — hasn’t been home in years. She and the kids arrive with a flurry of abrazos and exclamations, and the viewer is plunged into the warmth and chaos of it all.
It takes a few scenes to figure out who is who in the family. If this movie were the old-fashioned novel it sometimes resembles, there would be a family tree printed on the endpapers. But like a peripheral guest at the party, you look and listen and learn what you need to, an exercise that disciplines your attention for the intricate story you suspect is coming.
The kinship chart falls into place before your eyes. The bride and groom are Ana (Inma Cuesta), Laura’s sister, and Joan (Roger Casamajor), a nice guy from somewhere else. Other relatives run the hotel where the festivities are taking place.
Not everyone is kin, though. Bea (Bárbara Lennie) and Paco live on a nearby wine-producing estate, tending vineyards that used to belong to Laura and her family. There is also some history between Laura and Paco, who is played by Javier Bardem, Cruz’s real-life husband. Their two characters used to be lovers, which might raise a newcomer’s eyebrows but is one of the things that, well, everybody knows.
This is one of those movies in which the title is said aloud by a character — more than once. (On the other hand, the titular Leonard Cohen song remains unsung.) Mr. Farhadi’s intention is to investigate the way secrets bind and divide the people who share them. The plot turns several times on mistaken assumptions about what is and isn’t common knowledge, and on the disruptive, destructive power of unspoken grudges and half-buried memories.
At first, “Everybody Knows” unfolds in a hectic, half-comic vein, with hints of melodrama, mischief and misbehavior. You know something will go wrong, and you surmise it might involve Laura’s 16-year-old daughter, Irene (Carla Campra), who is impulsive and, like many teenagers, a bit of a boundary-tester. She flirts, she drinks, she sneaks up to the top of the church tower and moves the hands on the clock — and then, all of a sudden, she’s gone. A pile of clippings relating to an earlier kidnapping in the region is left on her bed, and a ransom demand is texted to both Laura and Bea’s phones.
Farhadi’s choreography of the shift from rowdy celebration to frantic desperation is the most effective part of the movie, and he keeps the suspense going on several fronts. Everybody wants to know what happened — and what will happen — to Irene, but the answer to that question requires the unraveling of other, earlier mysteries having to do with sex, money and honor.
One of the director’s earlier movies is called “The Past” — his others include “A Separation” and “The Salesman,” both foreign-language Oscar winners — and the non-pastness of the past remains for him both a central theme and a structural principle. It’s not only that people’s long-ago actions have a way of catching up with them, but that the invisible or unacknowledged consequences of those actions haunt the present like ghosts. What makes “Everybody Knows” so intensely watchable is the urge to see what shape those specters will take when they finally appear.
Farhadi is an excellent screenwriter and an impressive handler of actors, but the film nonetheless adds up to less than the sum of its parts. The high emotional temperature of the performances can’t quite disguise the mechanical nature of the story — it’s at once over-plotted and flimsy, a welter of reversals and revelations that don’t so much resolve as collapse. Until that happens, there is much pleasure and interest to be gotten from Cruz, Bardem and Darín, and from their less well-known but no less skilled colleagues. But the movie, which wants to be devastating, is merely satisfying.