Casualties of War and Filmmaking: Twice Born 

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Twice Born
Directed by Sergio Castellitto

Like Incendies, this film tells a story, set against the backdrop of a recent civil war, of a doomed romance and a loving family with secrets so toxic even the family itself doesn’t know them; they’re both intermittently powerful but ultimately unconvincing melodramas. Twice Born flips between present and past, a device that soon grows tiresome as almost nothing happens in the present-day while a middle-aged Italian woman named Gemma (Penélope Cruz) visits Sarajevo with her teenage son, Pietro (director Castellitto’s son, Pietro Castellitto). The two are guests of Gojcon (Adnan Haskovic), Gemma’s old friend, who radiates the smug self-regard of an aging hipster.

The filmmakers gradually reveal the purpose of his invitation through multiple flashbacks, starting with Gemma’s love affair with Diego (Emile Hirsch), an American photographer she met in Bosnia just before the war in the 90s. Their story ends soon after she flees embattled Sarajevo with the newborn Pietro, an infant given to the infertile Gemma by Aska (Saadet Aksoy), a flame-haired musician who is part of Gojcon’s multi-culti tribe of urban artists. Cruz and Hirsch make us feel the lovers’ pain, as infertility and war create a chasm between them, and Aksoy is affecting as the fiery Aska, the glitter fading from her emerald eyes as she becomes a casualty of war. But director Castellitto can’t get out of the way; instead, he deadens your senses with an onslaught of self-satisfied sentimentality.

The emotional impact of Gemma’s family history is dulled too by the murky blandness of the present-day scenes. Does Gemma love her husband (played by the elder Castellitto), or was he just the first life raft to bob into sight when she needed one? And what are we to make of Pietro, whose one histrionic fit of rage is a baffling contrast to his passivity in every other scene? Perhaps because he just isn’t a very good actor, the boy comes off mainly as a collection of pleasingly assembled geometric elements, his round blue eyes and pyramidal nose dominating his triangular face. In the end, I wasn’t sure who I felt for more, Cruz or the character she was playing. One thing’s for sure: they both deserve better than what happens to them in this movie.

Opens December 6

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