Cannes kicks off with two Spanish-language dramas, ‘Everybody Knows’ and ‘Birds of Passage’

Film Critic

The 71st Cannes Film Festival is underway (May 8-19), and L.A. Times critic Justin Chang is there, seeing as many movies as possible and writing about it for a day-by-day, film-by-film diary. This is one in a series of entries spanning from the opening festivities to closing night. For more entries and reviews, click here.

You truly don’t know what it means to suffer until you’re a journalist covering the Cannes Film Festival. Jet lag, spotty WiFi, a beautiful beach you never have time to visit, that croque-monsieur that smelled kinda funny — it’s the worst, I tell you.

But this year really takes the cake. This year, the 71-year-old festival finally did away with its long-standing tradition of holding advance press screenings for films playing in the main competition. Going forward, those press screenings will be held either concurrent with or after the film’s public gala screening, robbing journalists of their early access.

What this means, practically speaking, is that no film — and especially no bad film — will have to endure the indignity of being booed, dismissed and analyzed to death by the press before the filmmakers have been able to enjoy their glorious moment in the Grand Théatre Lumière’s spotlight. Now, whenever a piece of red-carpet bait as dreadful as Gus Van Sant’s “The Sea of Trees” or Sean Penn’s “The Last Face” premieres in competition, festivalgoers will be able to don their formalwear and march off to the gala screening at least theoretically unaware of the cinematic horrors that await them.

Or, as Cannes delegate general Thierry Frémaux put it more tactfully at a news conference Monday: “We want the gala screening to be the first screening, to turn it into a really major event so that the film is a total surprise for everyone.”

Having spent 12 years as a critic for a Hollywood trade publication, a job that required me to dash off the minute a festival press screening was over to write and post a full-length review within a few hours or less, I’m more than sympathetic to Frémaux’s notion that our culture of insta-reaction has not been especially good for films, for filmmakers or for film criticism. And so I had no real reason to complain — and indeed, found myself slightly curious — about how the festival press corps would be affected by a schedule aimed at restoring a sense of balance to a film’s reception.

The first picture to test the waters was the festival’s opening-night entry, “Everybody Knows” (“Todos lo Saben”), the latest family drama from the reliably strong Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi. There are a few other notable firsts at play here: It’s the first movie Farhadi has shot in Spain with Spanish-speaking actors (Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Ricardo Darín), and the first one he’s made that pretty much left me cold.

Not entirely cold, to be sure. Farhadi, who has won two Academy Awards for foreign-language film (for 2011’s “A Separation” and 2016’s “The Salesman”), remains too shrewd a dramatist to dispense with ingenious hairpin twists and pitch-perfect performances. At his best, as in “A Separation,” Farhadi achieves an exquisite balance of multi-perspective domestic melodrama and ingeniously constructed detective story: He fuses the ruthless suspense of Alfred Hitchcock with the emotional generosity of Jean Renoir.

And he has shown in the past — quite literally, in “The Past,” his fine 2013 French-language drama about an Iranian family living in Paris — a willingness to venture beyond his native borders. Still, “Everybody Knows” has taken him farthest from home, geographically if not dramatically: It sets us down amid the houses and vineyards of a Spanish village where a woman named Laura (Cruz), now living with her husband (Darín) and children in Argentina, has returned for her younger sister’s wedding. Old bonds and buried resentments are gradually renewed, including with Paco (Bardem), a successful vintner and friend of the family.

A movie could do far worse than simply let real-life spouses Bardem and Cruz (reunited on screen again after “Jamón Jamón” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) share scene after nicely acted scene in the sun-dappled Spanish countryside. The gorgeous look and feel of the place initially lends the story a leisurely, almost touristic vibe quite different from anything the director has achieved in his previous work. But the writer in Farhadi can’t keep his narrative engine idling for long. Tragedy strikes, the stakes escalate and before long a series of emotional discoveries arrive as if on cue.

The title of “Everybody Knows,” which sadly does not occasion a closing-credits blast of Leonard Cohen, is pretty self-explanatory. This is a story in which long-buried truths are painfully excavated, and in which the central characters realize, with mounting fear and suspicion, that people they assumed were ignorant (and therefore trustworthy) may know far more than they let on.

Those people may well include the audience; while my black-tie gala crowd leaned in appreciatively at the disclosure of a key twist, I heard from a few colleagues that the same scene elicited laughs and snorts of derision at the press screening.

But the title also suggests a more dispiriting and surely unintended meaning: Everybody who’s seen a Farhadi picture or two knows, at this point, what they’re getting. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem — people often grumble the same thing, pointlessly, about the Dardenne brothers — if Farhadi’s dramatic methods weren’t themselves predicated on the element of surprise. There was something already somewhat mechanical about the dramatic structure of his previous film, the Oscar-winning “The Salesman,” and with “Everybody Knows,” which is absorbing enough but lacking in any real sense of revelation, this undeniably gifted storyteller seems firmly stuck on Cruz control.

José Acosta and Natalia Reyes in “Birds of Passage.”
(Films Boutique)

‘Birds of Passage’ soars in Directors’ Fortnight

The morning after the premiere of “Everybody Knows,” the news broke that Focus Features had acquired the film for U.S. distribution, beating out Netflix, Variety reported, “because Farhadi and company wanted a traditional theatrical release.” Netflix movies, of course, are presently not allowed to compete for the Palme d’Or unless they consent to French exhibition laws, a rule that does seem a bit arbitrary in light of the very real possibility that the streaming giant could snap up a Cannes competition entry after the fact.

Still, being a fan of traditional theatrical releases myself, I’m pleased that Farhadi stuck to his guns.

Meanwhile, here’s hoping a similarly big-screen-inclined U.S. distributor snaps up Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s superior “Birds of Passage” (“Pájaros de Verano”), the galvanizing Colombian crime saga that opened Directors’ Fortnight, an independent program that runs parallel to the official selection.

Shot in the Guajira Desert of Colombia and structured in five “cantos” set across more than a decade, “Birds of Passage” tells the story of an indigenous Wayuu family that becomes embroiled in the burgeoning Colombian drug trade of the 1970s. That latter subject is hardly untilled dramatic territory, as any admirer of Netflix’s highly addictive “Narcos” will tell you, but perspective is everything: In favoring an indigenous perspective, grounding its crime-thriller tropes in the rich soil of native tradition, the movie achieves a lyrical power and moral clarity all its own.

The story begins, in seemingly innocuous fashion, with a courtship and a wedding. Rapayet (José Acosta), an outsider, wants to marry a beautiful Wayuu girl named Zaida (Natalia Reyes). And so he does, though the less-than-scrupulous manner in which he arranges her dowry — involving his unruly pal Moises (Jhon Narváez) and a couple of weed-loving, communism-dissing American gringos — casts a cloud over their marriage from the outset. That cloud will grow and grow.

“The spirits will warn me,” says Zaida’s mother, Úrsula (a formidable Carmiña Martínez), if her son-in-law should do anything to cause her daughter harm. And while the quietly charismatic Rapayet is a peace-loving sort, he can’t avoid the taint of his association with Moises, whose increasingly unpredictable, trigger-happy ways soon bring chaos upon Rayapet and his loved ones.

Like many a mob movie before it, “Birds of Passage” is predicated on the tension between family and business. But more than that, it’s a fascinatingly layered study in dueling tribal codes, the ways in which the rules of organized crime clash and intersect with Wayuu rituals and beliefs.

The widescreen desert vistas are strikingly beautiful; the performances, even the live-wire ones, are superbly restrained. The filmmakers, working from a screenplay by Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde, lend their characters enormous dramatic stature while maintaining a crucial emotional distance. You feel for these fathers, mothers and children as they endure their mythic rise and fall, but the ruthless, eternal cycle of violence begetting violence leaves no room for sentimentality.

Guerra, a major talent, was previously in the Fortnight with “Embrace of the Serpent” (2015), a hauntingly beautiful journey into the Amazon, shot in crystalline black and white, that became the first Colombian nominee for the foreign-language film Oscar. (Gallego, his co-director here, served as a producer on Guerra’s “Embrace of the Serpent” and his lovely, little-seen 2009 film “The Wind Journeys.”) Moving to the dramatic and folkloric rhythms of a culture we rarely see, “Birds of Passage” more or less picks up where “Serpent” left off, with a scalding vision of the twin ravages of capitalism and colonialism taking deep, devastating root.

The American drug dealers are largely peripheral figures here, and all the more damnable for their absence. In one startlingly tense scene featuring U.S. planes loaded first with cash, then with contraband, “Birds of Passage” suggests the flip side of last year’s fun, shambolic Hollywood entertainment “American Made.” Culturally and cinematically, it brings a vital counter-perspective — which is to say, it’s exactly the kind of movie one comes to Cannes hoping to see.