Laura (Penelope Cruz) returns home to Spain from her new home in Argentina for her sister Ana’s (Inmar Cuesta) wedding. While reuniting all her family and old friends, including her ex-lover and life-long friend Paco (Javier Bardem), her daughter Irene (Carla Campra) is kidnapped. Suspicion, doubt and fear overcome the tight-knit friends and family as they struggle to get her back.
It's the latest film from two times Oscar-winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi and it does not disappoint. In keeping with what he’s best at, the film is an abstemious and deliberate tale, successfully making what could have easily been made an over the top melodrama in the vein of Taken in the wrong hands into a gritty and unrelenting trudge through family relationships being torn apart and questioned. At times (including one major plot point that occurs halfway through the film), it seems as though the drama is veering dangerously close to soap-opera territory, but Farhadi brings it back around as he proves that these moments are necessary for the plot and damn effective (not to mention absolutely believable, which is impressive considering how it could have been handled). While it is not exactly the mellow and sobering look at a broken home in the same vein as Farhadi's A Separation, it is still more heartfelt and moving than many recent films dealing with similar family dramas.
The film’s story is gradual, beginning with the introduction to all the characters which comes naturally and feels organic. The situation is familiar and comforting, making the upcoming all the more fearfully awaited. The first act is solely taken up by character and situation exposition but never feels as though it drags. We are then thrown into the distress and the mystery which hits its mark masterfully, creating 10 minutes of pure horror as we watch Laura search frantically for her daughter and feel the pain she is in (thanks in the most part to Cruz’s performance as we thankfully see her return to the demanding and impressive roles she was born to play). While it feels as though in parts it can begin to drag, the use of well-placed moments of heightened emotion and clues as to Irene's whereabouts keeps the viewer invested and captivated. While we see no comeuppance for the villains (who are revealed in the third act), that is not what this film is about; it's not about the whodunnit or what we have come to expect from thrillers, but the relationships between people and the reality of what could really happen in the wake of a tragedy like this. For the record, Javier Bardem does not use his particular set of skills to find and kill Irene's kidnappers.
The harsh and upsetting nature of the film is juxtaposed by gorgeous Spanish vineyards, ancient city squares and classic Spanish architecture, making it not only a gripping family drama and thriller, but also a beautiful tour around rural Spain. It never embellishes nor tries to make grand what is not which also manages to somehow tie in the incredible scenery with the gritty realism of the rest of the film.
The film is entirely in Spanish and it is not particularly fast-paced and so may not be the casual viewer's ideal film, but I would hate for that to deter anyone because if not for its nuance, it should be seen for the exciting and new story.