In ‘Twice Born,’ the Bosnian War takes a backseat to Penelope Cruz

Emile Hirsch and Penelope Cruz play doomed lovers in "Twice Born." Credit: Entertainment One Films
Emile Hirsch and Penelope Cruz play doomed lovers in “Twice Born.”
Credit: Entertainment One Films

‘Twice Born’
Director: Sergio Castellitto
Stars: Penelope Cruz, Emile Hirsch
Rating: R
1 Globe (out of 5)

In “Twice Born,” Emile Hirsch plays Diego, an aggressively obnoxious American optimist abroad. He’s instantly captivated by Gemma (Penelope Cruz). She lacks a discernible personality, but she does look uncannily like Penelope Cruz, so that’s enough. “Every day with me will be a party,” he avers, in one of his typically overwrought, arms-flailing moments. “I can’t stand being sad!” Of course, any seasoned moviegoer knows that kind of talk only means unspeakable tragedy is en route. And how! Because of all the places Diego chose to be carefree in, he’s chosen Sarajevo in the early 1990s.

The Bosnian War, whose epic and tangled ethnic strife dominated the news cycle two decades past, deserves an epic that tells its story and humanizes its untold casualties and scarred survivors. But movie audiences rarely bother with tragedy unless a pretty, familiar face is involved. Even when the dust hadn’t settled, the War received 1997’s “Welcome to Sarajevo,” with Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei. With “Twice Born,” they get Cruz and Hirsch to distract from the real story.

It’s an odd pairing, and not just because of the age gap. Cruz is getting more and more commanding as she gets older, but even dirtied up as she is here, she’s still a glamazon. Meanhile Hirsch is a short, shaggy-haired goofball. They’re both terrific actors but they don’t match up. The casting feels like the result of an unusually loopy bout of Mad Libs.

Gemma and Diego hang in a bubble of artists, who have no idea of the pain that’s coming. The atrocities are delayed far longer than they should be, at which point comes a delayed battering ram of unearned shocks. This European production is thoroughly cheesy and phony, nowhere less so than in its florid, undeliverable dialogue, which sounds like it’s been translated, poorly, from various languages into English, then put into the mouths of actors, most of whom don’t regularly speak it.

More important, this is the kind of film that compares the Bosnian War to a doomed romance, as well as one musician’s love for Nirvana. (War broke out around the time Kurt Cobain killed himself. Coincidence?) Writer-director Sergio Catellitto — a very fine actor, who gives himself a tiny role — adapts the novel by his wife, and it’s the kind of misjudged effort that only comes about from true love. He doesn’t think to ditch a largely useless wraparound story with the middle-aged Cruz, which would have at least meant less silly aging makeup. Then again, he didn’t consider not adapting it at all, which was his first and most crucial mistake.


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