"TWICE BORN" is an old-fashioned war romance with all the sexing up and complications we expect in newer entries in this genre. Overlong, with stars who don't have a lot of chemistry, but packed with third-act surprises, this Bosnian war remembrance needs every ounce of pathos that its stars, Penelope Cruz and Emile Hirsch, can bring it.
Gemma (Cruz) is an Italian academic with a teenage son. Her policeman/husband isn't the boy's father. Nor was her first husband, an architect. No, young Pietro's parentage is more complicated, something we discover through the long flashback that's inspired by her return (with Pietro) to Sarajevo, summoned there by an old friend, Gojco (Adnan Haskovic).
Back then, on the eve of the Sarajevo Olympics, she was doing research in Bosnia, where the biggest concern of the locals was whether they'd have snow for the winter games. Married Gemma meets hunky fashion photographer Diego (Hirsch), who pursues her in that aggressive American way.
"Drop everything and run away with me," he purrs. "Every day will be a party with me, baby."
She resists the attentions of the younger man. Until she doesn't.
And then the war starts.
Director Sergio Castellitto bounces this narrative back and forth between the present, with Gemma dealing with some aching loss in her past, and different points in that past; a courtship, a birth, the horrors of war.
Novelist Margaret Mazzantini, who co-wrote the script, gives everyone a sort of Serbian fatalism about the genocidal civil war.
Gojco, back then, was Gemma's flirtatious poet-guide to the country. He has the best lines, like:
"Poetry is God when he feels nostalgic for man."
Gojco is part of a Sarajevo arts community where the denial runs deep. Lines of people fleeing the city when the shooting starts only earns a "They would never touch Sarajevo" from him and his friends, the silly dreamers.
The war plays out on TV, until the snipers show up in Sarajevo and the power is cut off and the city is under siege. Meanwhile, Gemma's efforts to conceive "to tie him [Diego] to me" play out against that bloody backdrop.
The sweeping setting, sad characters and sexy stars give this a touch of "The English Patient." But "Twice Born" fails to tug at the heartstrings or wring tears from us. Hirsch plays exuberant and callow well, Cruz is tragic and earthy as ever. But the two of them never really click - sex scenes included.
Still, when the third act rolls in and the surprises start piling up, when events from long ago are shown through a more accurate lens, "Twice Born" rises to something nobler and closer to heartbreaking. And that's exactly what cast, crew and novelist were going for.