Damned if I know why "Iranian filmmaker directing European art cinema" has turned out to be such a robust, reliable formula, but here we are with Everybody Knows, writer-director Asghar Farhadi's eighth feature and the first made entirely outside of his home country, and the pattern holds. This is, admittedly, not necessarily the consensus opinion towards a film that has met mostly with politely disappointed reviews since it opened the 2018 Cannes International Film Festival, and I confess myself baffled why that's the case. To me, this combination of domestic drama and mystery-thriller blows right past Farhadi's last film, 2016's The Salesman, a similar genre hybrid that was rather annoyingly unfocused, I thought. It is cozily the director's best film since 2011's A Separation, and if that is where we must end it, it's because very few directors are able to make two movies as good as A Separation.

So no, Everybody Knows might not quite be that good, but it's still a whole lot of very amazing movie. If nothing else, it's hard to imagine that 2019 will bear witness to anything released in the United States with a higher across-the-board average of acting talent. The film starts out as a reasonably direct, though still not "simple" family drama: Laura (Penélope Cruz) has just arrived from her home in Argentina to return to the small town in Spain where she grew up, with her teen daughter Irene (Carla Campra) and younger son Diego (Iván Chavero) in tow. Her reason for returning is the marriage of her sister Ana (Inma Cuesta), which means the whole family is there, and to go into it more than that would mean a whole lot of names for you to keep track of to very little purpose; one of the extremely great pleasures of Everybody Knows is the way it depicts and dissects the interrelationships of a somewhat messy family situation involving one widowed old man with three adult daughters, one of whom has her own adult daughter, and all of them somewhat fallen on hard times. Meanwhile, Laura's old flame Paco (Javier Bardem), no married to Bea (Bárbara Lennie), co-owns a modestly successful winery on land that used to belong to Laura's family, and which he purchased for much below its market value. All of these facts put next to each other make for a bit of resentment co-mingled with nostalgia. Absolutely none of this plays out the way you suppose it might.

This is all sterling, masterpiece-level stuff. Farhadi's gift for coming up with the three or four details that will instantly imprint a new character on our brain, along with their connections to all the other characters, borders on the miraculous. His skill for quickly gesturing to how people interact with each other and the space around them is relatively less dumbfounding, but still awfully wonderful and good: the film's second scene involves Laura, Irene, and Diego passing a phone around Ana's car saying hello to Laura's absent husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín), who was obliged to stay back in Argentina, and as simple a matter of how the camera orients itself to each of the three as they speak communicates a great deal about the personalities involved. To say nothing of how he starts to toss around glances, stage business, and tiny pieces of dialogue once the wedding (always a great location for big messy character dramas) gets into full gear. There's a wide shot of a whole mess of people milling around in a room, with Laura in the foreground recording people with her phone, and the way that Farhadi marks out Laura as our primary subject, as well as the way she occupies herself with the phone while people around her sing and chortle, and how there's no clear indication that we were actually "supposed" to notice any of this, is enough to make for truly wonderful, ineluctable bit of movie magic.

All of this shifts, in a big way, somewhere between the one-third and one-half mark of a lengthy (133 minutes) but righteously fast-paced film. I will not say what happens, other than that the film is very much not what you probably might imagine it to be based on the plot points I've given so far. Instead, much like all of Farhadi's work, it's about what happens when people are put into extremely stressful situations, and are compelled to cope with these situations by revealing truths that they believed to have been well-hidden, but are in some sense right there on the surface for all to see. "Everybody knows" is as much a sick joke as anything; the film is to a certain degree the process of watching Laura confirm things that everyone already suspected, and having that confirmation throttle down on the viewer like a choker. It's genuinely quite stunning how the film makes the revelation of truths seem claustrophobic and punishing rather than freeing; every new truth pins the characters down, reduces their number of options, and strips away their vanity, till all that remains is a kind of shabby desperation.

The film is something of an anti-soap opera; the plot points sound fulsomely melodramatic, but their expression is grave and painfully realistic. This realism comes, partially, from Farhadi's extraordinary gift for knowing what makes a human being tick and presenting it in the fewest possible ingredients; sometimes, all it takes is cutting to one character at the right time to impart years of backstory (there's a moment near the end when a three-shot anchored by Cruz cuts to a single of Bardem, and that one cut does basically all of the necessary storytelling work for the entire climax). It also benefits from some truly magnificent acting: Bardem, Cruz, Darín, and Lennie are all doing some of the most finely-etched work I could fantasize about seeing, providing stillness, anguished glances, and muttered line deliveries in place of the loud Oscar-clip breast beating that the scenario could easily support.

The film also has a keen sense of space, capturing the small town in shots that feel artlessly casual, until you notice how precisely the frame selects just what we can and cannot see, and how the lighting is too dramatically perfect to have just been found there by cinematographer José Luis Alcaine. It looks like pure realism, but it has the focus of a world-class thriller, and that combination is at the center of everything the film does: genre trash born from the exacting detail with which characters and a world are built. Really, the only flaw I can point to on any level is that there are maybe a dozen scenes, of varying importance to the plot, that have some shockingly lousy editing (shocking because there are as many other scenes that have conspicuously great editing). Shocking enough to tip me out of the film altogether a couple of times. But that's a little thing, and there are a lot of great big huge things going on that make this as exciting in its genre mechanics as it is sensitive and heartbreaking in its characterisations. How this isn't a major critical triumph is a total mystery, but oh well, all the more for me.