Asghar Farhadi earned worldwide acclaim and two Oscars for domestic dramas like A SeparationThe Past and The Salesman. So the Iranian filmmaker’s new movie, Everybody Knows, represents a left turn: it’s his first time working in Spain, an unexpected transition to the mystery-thriller genre, and it stars two household names, Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem. Yet Everybody Knows, a nail-biting whodunit in the mould of Agatha Christie, still displays all the nuanced characterisation and deft storytelling of Farhadi’s previous work. It’s fitting, then, that the writer-director describes Everybody Knows as “a Spanish film with an Iranian soul”.

“A lot of effort was put into making a film that would look and sound and feel completely Spanish for a Spanish audience,” Farhadi explains to Dazed, via a translator. “But because the film is made by someone like me, who has an Iranian upbringing and background, it’s obvious that its core, its soul, comes from where I’m from. I tried to build my film on the common field between these two aspects.”

The jigsaw puzzle plot unfolds in a sun-drenched Spanish village, where secrets spread and a wedding goes spectacularly wrong. Early on, Farhadi introduces us to a web of relatives and acquaintances, many of whom will eventually become suspects. Key among them are the bride’s sister, Laura (Cruz), and family friend Paco (Bardem). There’s dancing, revelry, and signs this could be the closest Farhadi ever comes to Mamma Mia. But when Laura’s rebellious teen daughter, Irene (Carla Campra), vanishes overnight, the party shuts down, and the Hitchcockian mechanics kick into gear.

It was around 15 years ago that Farhadi, on a trip to Spain, spotted a poster for a missing girl, and the idea for a kidnapping thriller buried its way into his brain. So in 2013, he penned a treatment, and set himself a challenge: he was to research the country firsthand, and learn the language from scratch. After all, it’s an obstacle he overcame for the Parisian setting of The Past. “I like to get to know other cultures through cinema,” the director says, “and to try to find the similarities and differences with my own culture, and to enlarge my experience of the world through cinema.

“Another aspect I like about Spain is that, in this country, there’s a harmony between their past and their present; their traditions and the modernity of their present life.” He adds, “I felt that Spanish culture wasn’t very far my own culture, and the emotional relationships are very close to what I knew from my own culture. But with the theme I had chosen, I wasn’t able to make it in Iran – I would have had to change many aspects of the story.”

At first, Irene, nauseous from wine, retires early in the evening. But when Laura checks in on her daughter’s bedroom, instead of finding Irene, she finds newspaper clippings that detail a previous abduction case. It’s followed by a ransom note: Irene’s safety will cost 300,000 euros, and any contact with the police will trigger her execution. Amidst the ensuing panic, family secrets and resentments spill out, and the questions pile up. Should Laura risk it with the authorities? Why does Paco, merely a friend of the mother, seem so affected by the scenario? And could Laura, aware of Paco’s wealth, have masterminded her own daughter’s Fargo-esque kidnapping? Still, they all agree one thing: the culprit must be hiding among them.

“I like to get to know other cultures through cinema, and to try to find the similarities and differences with my own culture, and to enlarge my experience of the world through cinema” – Asghar Farhadi

The tantalising premise meant that Everybody Knows earned the honour of opening last year’s Cannes Film Festival and competing for the Palme d’Or. However, the response, while still positive, didn’t match the acclaim of Farhadi’s previous arthouse hits. Could it be that some viewers, faced with a potboiler mystery, would prefer that the auteur stuck with more grounded dramas like A Separation? “When a director makes films that audiences relate to and appreciate, they tend to get used to their cinematic language or style,” he says. “Sometimes they seem to expect him or her to keep making the same film in a very predictable way.

“I try to be loyal to my own filmmaking, and not to change it radically. But at the same time, I experiment with new things. For instance, working in different cultures and different languages. In Everybody Knows, the subject at the heart was new to me. I have never dealt with – directly, at least – in my other films with the confrontation between a person who believes in God, and somebody who doesn’t.”

That confrontation involves Laura’s husband, Alejandro (Ricardo Darín), a religious man who suggests that everything happens for a reason. Yet there are suspicions: Alejandro was unable to attend the wedding, he’s unemployed, and he’s strapped for cash – again, every morsel of backstory sends your inner Columbo into a frenzy. Add to that the romantic history between Laura and Paco, a simmering chemistry that’s heightened by Cruz and Bardem’s real-life marriage.

The pair were, Farhadi says, his first choice for the roles. The couple, who have co-starred in nine films since 1992’s Jamón Jamón, sprang to mind during the director’s years of visiting Spain and perusing Spanish movies for research. “Living in Spain influenced my writing, and also the conversations I would have with my advisors,” Farhadi recalls. “For instance, the relationship between Laura and Alejandro. In my first treatment, she didn’t tell her husband that the child was his. And when I stayed in Spain and got to know the culture better, I realised that a woman like her would reveal the truth to her husband.”

That said, Farhadi didn’t spend five years solidly preparing for Everybody Knows. He dedicated two years to The Salesman, which earned him the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2017. When Farhadi won that same award in 2012 for A Separation, his acceptance speech mentioned: “At this time, many Iranians all over the world are watching us, and I imagine them to be very happy.” For the 2017 Oscars, though, Farhadi became one of those home viewers; he skipped the awards show in protest against Donald Trump’s travel ban, and watched the telecast from his living room in Tehran.

“Like any other film director or artist,” he says, “I would have preferred to attend the ceremony and be there, and I wish this travel ban hadn’t have happened, and I’d have been able to be there. But I don’t regret not going there, because this was a decision that I explained through the text that I sent, and that was read on stage, and it was my way of supporting the citizens of the countries who were under this travel ban.”

After studying new languages for The Past and Everybody Knows, Farhadi mentions that he’s open to shooting a film in English, although a play would be his preference. Numerous scripts and books are sent through his American agent, he continues, but none have been “close to my taste or to my filmmaking”. For the moment, his focus is on a movie he’s currently researching and hoping to write soon. The plan is to shoot it in 2020.

Farhadi is enjoying a freedom that is not afforded to his friend, the great director Jafar Panahi. The Iranian government have banned Panahi from filmmaking (or tried to – his latest, 3 Faces, comes out soon) and from leaving the country. Does Farhadi fear that he might face a similar punishment in the future?

“Any filmmaker who deals with social matters is submitted to this risk,” Farhadi says. “But when I write or when I work or when I shoot films, I try not to think about this kind of risk, because you can never predict what might happen to you. So you better make the film you want to make.”

Everybody Knows is out in cinemas now