Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Twice Born

Like Incendies, Twice Born is the story of a doomed romance and a loving family with secrets so toxic even the family itself doesn’t know them, set against the backdrop of a recent civil war. Also like Incendies, Twice Born is an intermittently powerful but ultimately unconvincing melodrama.

Twice Born flips between present and past—-a device that soon gets tiresome, since almost nothing of interest happens in the present, in which a middle-aged Italian woman named Gemma (Penélope Cruz) visits Sarajevo with her teenage son, Pietro (director Sergio Castellitto’s son, Pietro Castellitto). The two are the guests of Gojcon (Adnan Haskovic), an old friend of Gemma’s who radiates the smug self-regard of an aging hipster.

The reason Gojcon invited mother and son to his city is gradually revealed through multiple flashbacks, starting with Gemma’s love affair with Diego (Emile Hirsch), an American photographer she met in Bosnia just before the Bosnian War of 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 the war. But director Castellitto can’t usually get far enough out of the way to let his actors pluck at our heartstrings. Instead, he deadens the senses with an onslaught of self-satisfied sentimentality. “What does truth taste like?” the psychologist (Jane Birkin) who is evaluating Gemma and Diego as potential adoptive parents asks Gemma eagerly, grasping greedily at our attention after Cruz’s sensitive delivery of a particularly painful admission. The psychologist is the most egregious in a parade of annoying minor characters, her faux-poetic questions and painfully sensitive facial expressions obviously meant to register as sympathetic though they come off as almost comically sanctimonious.

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 pacific 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 fates than what happens to them in this movie.

Written for The L Magazine

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