Film Review: Twice Born

Penélope Cruz and Emile Hirsch play ill-matched—in every sense – lovers in Sergio Castellitto’s misguided romantic melodrama.

Italian actor-turned-director Sergio Castellitto’s 2004 feature, Don’t Move, logged some travel largely on the strength of Penélope Cruz’s intense performance. But it’s in the best interests of everyone concerned that their second collaboration, Twice Born—which misuses Emile Hirsch as the other half of an ill-fated love story—be denied a visa. Dripping with floridly phony dialogue that no actor should be forced to speak, this paternity mystery uses the Bosnian conflict as the manipulative backdrop to a preposterously overwrought and overlong melodrama.

Adapted by Castellitto and his wife Margaret Mazzantini from her novel, the material may have had more credibility on the page. Onscreen, however, in a big, lustrous, predominantly English-language production that appears to have benefited from an ample budget, the story reeks of cheap sentiment masquerading as social and political engagement.

“The weirdest love stories are always the best,” says Hirsch’s globetrotting photographer Diego in one of the film’s extended flashbacks. He also says things like “The world’s going to hell, baby. And we’re going down with it.” That hell would be the Yugoslav Wars and, in particular, the 1992 siege of Sarajevo, several years after Diego first met Italian student Gemma (Cruz) there.

The present-day frame has middle-aged Gemma returning with her 16-year-old son Pietro (Pietro Castellitto) to Sarajevo at the invitation of her old friend Gojko (Adnan Haskovic), once the heart of a vibrant group of artists, poets and philosophers. While sullen Pietro resists the impulse to delve into his origins, insisting he was born in Sarajevo “by mistake,” Gemma’s return to the scene of her greatest love stokes potent memories and conflicted emotions.

Both she and Diego desperately wanted a child but were unable to conceive, prompting them to make difficult choices that caused the relationship’s painful unraveling. “Bella donna, we are a luckless generation,” says Gojko. But he’s not telling her the half of it, at least not until the final act’s tragic revelations.

Deglammed in a graying frump wig for much of the film, Cruz provides a more dignified center than Twice Born deserves. She’s sorrowful but composed, clearly aware that the deep bruises of experience will never heal.

But Gemma’s relationship with Diego, which should be the story’s engine, never musters an ounce of emotional truth. That’s in large part because Hirsch is stuck playing a romantic schoolgirl notion of the reckless rebel with a cause, shouting his impassioned convictions from the rooftops. The drippy earnestness of this character is fatal to the film’s dramatic integrity.

Gojko runs a close second. Saluting a fallen comrade, he intones, “He loved U2, Levi’s 501’s and Kafka.” It’s this kind of cheese that nudges the film toward involuntary parody and ultimately trivializes the horrors of the Bosnian War, which are intended to bolster the story's gravitas. That’s a shame considering the meticulous craft that cinematographer Gianfilippo Corticelli, production designer Francesco Frigeri and the visual-effects team have put into recreating Sarajevo at the height of the conflict.

Saadet Aksoy brings a subdued fieriness to her scenes as a Bosnian woman whose fate becomes intertwined with Diego and Gemma’s. But too many faux-poetic exchanges and psychologically bogus character choices get in the way of the film’s emotional impact. A notable example is a bizarre scene with Jane Birkin as an English-speaking Rome adoption agent who weeps while having to tell former heroin addict Diego and his older wife that their application has been denied.

While the adoption agent presumably is a cultural transplant in Italy, it’s never explained how seemingly everyone in the former Yugoslavia—from fertility doctors to peasant farmers—speaks more-than-passable English. However, that’s the least of this solemn but silly misfire’s issues.

The Hollywood Reporter