I’ve yet to come across a wartime melodrama that I personally felt was worth its weight in gold … with the notable exception being the absolutely perfect CASABLANCA. Mind you, there have been some terrific human dramas, but the tear-jerking story has so many mountains to climb let alone dispense with the Nazis. Or the Russkies. Or the Cubans. Or whoever else Hollywood wants to throw at audiences. Still, producers relent, believing that the perfect blend of human suffering, overwrought performances, and winning cinematography will once more woo viewers to the cause. I’m all for filmed tragedies – what better way to keep them prescient for cultures with a 30-second attention span – but, at some point, someone should’ve fed some prenatal vitamins to TWICE BORN. Supersized ones.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Gemma (played by the always electric Penelope Cruz) and Diego (Emile Hirsch) are star-crossed lovers who embark on their own little whirlwind romance after meeting in Sarajevo circa the 1980’s. However, the bonds of their passion are soon put to the ultimate test: for reasons never clearly explained, Diego needs to have children while Gemma it turns out is sterile. Still, our heroine is intent upon giving her true love a child, and together they begin to consider some dramatic choices, including adoption, artificial insemination, and even surrogacy. War breaks out, driving them apart in more ways than the conventional soap opera writing staff could ever imagine, and it’s all rather cleverly told via flashback, with an aged Gemma introducing her son (???) Pietro to the less-than-romantic land of his ‘accidental birth’ (???).
Trust me when I say that I couldn’t even begin to recount the innumerable twists and turns required in order to make TWICE BORN into a serviceable story. There are friendships that come and go throughout its 127 minutes, many of which are merely introduced and never given ample screen time to develop organically in front of an audience. Instead – in an almost kind of scattershot presentation – viewers are whisked from one incident to the next with very little supporting notation to let them know that the timeframe has shifted from the past to the present. Thank goodness someone thought to put laugh lines on Cruz’s eternally young face!
Director Sergio Castellito (who also appears in a brief role, as well as producing and co-scripting the work) does what he can to continually hammer the relevance of these people, the plot, and their plight into our eyes, ears, and minds. Sadly, there’s no real nuance to any of it. No knowing glances here. No heartfelt chatter there … or, at least, not in a convincing level of ‘heartfelt-ness.’ Instead, everything goes from good to bad then bad to worse almost mechanically. In many ways, it’s like the big budget community theatre production of CATS – everyone knows their lines, but the substance here has lost all meaning.
I’d like to think that impression was because, frankly, I could argue that the story as presented was simply too ambitious. When I couldn’t learn to care about these people and their struggles against whatever regime or even fate that conspired against them, then it’s almost like I’m reading from recited facts of a tragic history. It has no flavor. It has no emotional core. I’ve often struggled with reading historical accounts of America’s past from authors who relied so heavily on the logistics of each and every moment – here’s what caused Battle A, here’s how many men were present, here’s how many died on this day versus that day, etc. By contrast, TWICE BORN wants me to care about Gemma, Diego, and all of the others, but they’re never presented in such a way as to make me naturally give two hoots about what they went through.
Consequently, I didn’t care. So if someone was born twice, then I cared less even the second time.
TWICE BORN  is produced by a whole host of participants, including Medusa Film, Alien Produzioni, Mod Producciones, Picomedia, Telecinco Cinema, and Sky Cinema to name but a few. (If you’re interested in a complete list, then check out the citations at IMDB.com.) DVD distribution is being handled by Entertainment One (aka E One) Entertainment. For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a multiple-language motion picture (Italian, Bosnian, and English), and it is fairly evenly divided between them. As for the technical specifications, this is a sharply assembled film, boasting some terrific cinematography along with the sights and sounds. Lastly, if it’s special features you want, then there are a series of cast interviews along with the theatrical trailer. (Somehow, I expected more from something I was led to believe was so important.)
(MILDLY) RECOMMENDED. Based on a novel and feeling much like I’d sat for as long as it’d take me to read one, TWICE BORN tries so very hard to be relevant, but, in the end, the melodrama feels reduced to glorified ‘chick lit’ set against the backdrop of a modern war. Cruz performs admirably, though not at any Oscar-worthy level (so far as I’m concerned), yet everyone else kinda/sorta blend in precisely as the local color they’re meant to portray. At 127 minutes, it’s filled with bloat – the kind of which practically cries out repeatedly to the audience, “Look how important all of this is!” The trouble is that it ain’t.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Entertainment One (aka E One) Entertainment provided me with an advance DVD copy of TWICE BORN by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.