Review: Romance but little chemistry in hyperventilating ‘Twice Born’

Emile Hirsch and Penelope Cruz in a scene from "Twice Born."
Emile Hirsch and Penelope Cruz in a scene from “Twice Born.”
(Entertainment One Films)

It’s debatable whether the best love stories are also the “weirdest,” as Emile Hirsch’s character declares in “Twice Born.” But they do require chemistry, the missing piece in his pairing with Penélope Cruz.

Set in Sarajevo before, during and many years after the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, the drama is undone by hyperventilating poetics and a busy time-hopping structure.

The usually subtle Hirsch flounders as American photographer Diego, who falls hard for older Italian graduate student Gemma (Cruz) in the bohemian circles of a thriving Sarajevo. Their story, including the protracted lead-up to marriage and their struggle to conceive a child, unfolds in flashbacks framed by the middle-aged Gemma’s return to the city, accompanied by her teenage son. The boy knows that Diego is his biological father but rejects the merest suggestion that he’s anything but Italian.

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Helmer Sergio Castellitto, who wrote the screenplay with his wife, Margaret Mazzantini, based on her novel, draws pointed parallels as he shuttles between past and present toward a dark revelation — which packs a punch despite the overdone melodrama. His portrait of fringe-dwelling young artists, including a Nirvana-obsessed singer (Saadet Aksoy), captures their ironic distance from the civic pride of Sarajevo’s 1984 Olympics and, ultimately, their inability to escape the devastation of the 1992 siege.

Cruz is the film’s emotional center, even as her character’s identity is subsumed by the often silly emphasis on romance. Hirsch’s free spirit, forced to spout such groaners as “Every day will be a party with me, baby,” gives life-loving exuberance a bad name — but offers glimpses of his aptness for the role of John Belushi, which he’s slated to play.


“Twice Born.”


MPAA rating: R for violence, including a rape scene, sexuality/nudity, language and some drug content. In English, Italian and Bosnian with English subtitles.

Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes.

Playing: at Laemmle’s Town Center 5, Encino.