Twice Born, directed by, Sergio Castellitto, who adapted his wife Margaret Mazzantini’s novel, is a sticky dish of Euro-pudding. Penélope Cruz plays Gemma, an Italian woman who finds herself doing graduate studies in Sarajevo, in 1984. The town is preparing for the Olympics. Later it will be at war. She finds an energetic guide in Gojco (Adnan Haskovic), and soon meets and falls in love with Diego (Emile Hirsch), a charming and sexy photographer.
However, Gemma is engaged to be married. In fact, Gemma gets married and divorced in about 3 minutes of screen time. This allows her to reunite with Diego, two scenes later. He woos her with cemetery candles.
“How can you always be so happy?” Gemma asks her lover.
“Easy. I can’t stand being sad,” he responds.
If this dialogue is not cheesy enough, Diego later tells her “The weirdest love stories are also the best.”
Twice Born is not a great love story by any means, but it does have a few interesting sequences. Gemma wants a child, but is having trouble conceiving. She considers adopting, but a meeting with a psychologist (Jane Birkin) yields Diego’s strange, compelling confession about heroin use, as well as more crummy lines like, “What does truth taste like?” Needless to say, they are denied a child.
Eventually, Diego and Gemma’s relationship hits the skids (in the 1990s) and he finds himself attracted to Aska (Saadet Aksoy), a Croatian who loves Nirvana. But the war is on, and when Aska finds herself with child, Diego arranges for Gemma take the baby and raise it as her own.
This episode forms the crux of Twice Born, which toggles back and forth in time as Gemma reconnects with Gojco who eventually guides her to learn the truth about her son back in Sarajevo. When she learns of her son’s conception, it is in a last act reveal that is emotionally devastating. Alas, little else in the film is.
Castellitto has trouble pacing his melodrama, and many scenes feel haphazardly constructed. Even a potentially riveting sequence–as when Diego disrupts an elegant party by acting out and mimicking war–lacks impact because it is filmed as an odd, comic moment, not a dramatic one.
Cruz also gets a wild scene, where she berates someone publically, calling him a bastard(!), but it seems more silly than serious. The Oscar-winning actress may have been attracted to play the complex Gemma, but the character is all over the place. She is sympathetic in the contemporary scenes but not in than the extended flashbacks which compose most of the film
Twice Born is all about the past haunting the present, and how decisions and secrets can have lasting emotional impacts. This comes across during the horrific reveal in the finale, but Castellitto’s film would have been much stronger if he did not insist on putting his emphasis on the wrong syllable.