The Bosnian War Deserves a Better Film than ‘Twice Born’

[17 March 2014]

By Jon Lisi

The Bosnian War deserves a great film. It’s a horrific period in world history that more people should know about, and considering that cinema is the world’s most popular art form, a film about this tragedy has the potential to enrich and enlighten the lives of those who’d never dare pick up a book.

I imagine that a truly powerful film about the Bosnian War will do for this vital historic turning point what Schindler’s List did for the Holocaust and what Hotel Rwanda did for the Rwandan genocide. It will encourage school districts to incorporate Bosnia into the curriculum, and it will remind everyone that “never again” is akin to a bumper sticker slogan if mass destruction persists on a global scale.

Twice Born is not that film. If anything, the only “never again” that is spoken when the credits roll refers to filmmaker Sergio Castellitto’s perplexing desire to write and direct middling melodramas with little purpose and sense of direction. Penélope Cruz and Emile Hirsch may have top billing, but the A-list talent on display doesn’t conceal the fact that Twice Born is a Lifetime movie with bigger stars. Please, Mr. Castellitto, never make a movie like this again.

The film tells the story of Gemma (Cruz), a single mother who recalls an ill-fated love affair with her son’s father Diego (Hirsch), an America photographer, when she returns to Sarajevo with her teenage son. Diego died in the Bosnian War and Gemma has since had difficulties coping with this tragic loss. As you might expect, flashbacks ensue and we are brought into 1984 when Gemma and Diego meet during the Winter Olympics and their ravishing romance is soon destroyed by greater forces.

I’ll stop here before you start to become interested in the story. On paper, the premise sounds inviting. Who wouldn’t want to watch Cruz play a heartbroken lover? But the execution is far from stellar, and Cruz, as committed to the project as she is, is unable to salvage the film.

Twice Born has many problems, chief among them the lack of chemistry between the two leads. As viewers, it’s hard to be sold on a love story when the main actors don’t possess any spark. Perhaps both Cruz and Hirsch nailed their auditions separately, but Castellitto should have had the good sense to test them together. Any movie of this sort lives or dies by the romantic intrigue between the main characters, and unfortunately, Cruz and Hirsch don’t have what it takes. It’s awkward to watch them interact on screen, and one wonders what drew Gemma to Diego in the first place, other than that she needs to fall in love with him for the sake of the movie.

Moreover, the backdrop of the film itself is borderline offensive. That Castellitto has the audacity to make melodrama out of a tragic war suggests that he’s more interested in manipulating the viewer’s emotions than saying anything remotely relevant about the events that took place in Bosnia. In many ways, Twice Born is an inferior version of Sophie’s Choice (1982), the now iconic Holocaust melodrama starring Meryl Streep. Both films sentimentalize a global tragedy, with the only difference, of course, being that Streep can act her way out of a paper bag if needed, and Cruz relies on the quality of the script and the skills of the filmmaker. When working with Woody Allen, Pedro Almodóvar, and Isabel Coixet, Cruz is marvelous, but when filmmakers like Castellitto get hold of her, there’s no telling what will happen.

Ultimately, by trying to be a war film and a romance, Twice Born bites off more than it can chew. It fails to resonate with the viewer, and it takes what has the potential to be an engrossing cinematic backdrop—the Bosnian War—and turns it into cheap sentiment.

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