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‘Twice Born’: Magnificent Penelope Cruz overcomes the melodrama

An Italian college student (Penelope Cruz) an American photographer (Emile Hirsch) fall love story told flashback set 1980s Sarajevo “Twice

An Italian college student (Penelope Cruz) and an American photographer (Emile Hirsch) fall in love in a story told in flashback and set in 1980s Sarajevo in “Twice Born.” Even in heavy sex scenes, the actors lack chemistry. | ENTERTAINMENT ONE FILMS

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Gemma Penelope Cruz

Diego Emile Hirsch

Entertainment One presents a film directed by Sergio Castellitto and written by Castellito and Margaret Mazzantini, based on Mazzantini’s novel. In English and Italian (with English subtitles). Running time: 124 minutes. Rated R (for violence including a rape scene, sexuality/nudity, language and some drug content). Opens Friday at the AMC Barrington and on video on demand.

Updated: January 7, 2014 6:09AM

From “As Time Goes By” in “Casablanca” to Francis Ford Coppola’s use of Wagner to legendary effect in “Apocalpyse Now,” many a war movie includes pivotal musical references.

I’m reasonably sure “Twice Born” is the first war film in which two characters are reunited years after the carnage and one says, “Do you still listen to Nirvana?”

Teeming with familiar war-film clichés and at times almost unbearably melodramatic, “Twice Born” is nevertheless worth the effort, thanks in large part to a magnificent performance from Penelope Cruz and some fine work from the international supporting cast.

We start with Penelope Cruz’s Gemma and her husband Giuliano (he’s played by the director of this movie, the Italian actor-turned-filmmaker Sergio Castellitto), as a middle-aged couple having breakfast in their comfortable home in Italy. Gemma says she’s been invited to a photography exhibit in Sarajevo, and by her husband’s reaction, we know she’s going to go (and she’s going to take her 16-year-old son Pietro, who’d rather be hanging with his friends at home), and we know there’s a lot of history there.

For the remainder of the journey, “Twice Born” (adapted from a novel by Margaret Mazzantini, Castellitto’s wife) jumps back and forth between Sarajevo of the early 1980s through the early 1990s to the present day.

Shortly before the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, college student Gemma is working on a thesis and hires a local driver named Gojko (Adnan Haskovic), a bear of a life-embracing man who introduces Gemma to his bohemian friends, including the American photographer Diego, who instantly falls in love with Gemma and wins her heart with his relentless, boundless, completely annoying enthusiasm.

Emile Hirsch is a solid talent but he’s miscast as Diego, who’s so manic and so over-the-top we’re exhausted with his act well before Gemma figures it out. There’s not a speck of heat between these two, even in the semi-torrid sex scenes. Hirsch plays Diego’s highs BIG and his lows even bigger. Diego has his noble moments, but they seem like forced plot twists.

Diego constantly shouts to the skies about his love for Gemma — but their marriage is tested when they learn Gemma is incapable of having a child. Jane Birkin of all people shows up as an adoption counselor and delivers a beautiful performance in just a couple of scenes.

How Gemma eventually becomes a mother is the central mystery. We know she has a 16-year-old son who was born in Sarajevo, but some difficult, life-changing decisions were made in order for that to happen.

We get subtitles from time to time, but most of the film is in English, with some of the actors doing a better job with the language. (Cruz, for example, is Spanish and is playing an Italian speaking English. Worked for me.) On a few occasions, it was difficult to pick up what an actor was saying, especially in the party scenes or with gunshots and bombs ringing out in the background.

“Twice Born” is a movie that makes you work a little, whether you’re bending an ear toward the dialogue or sifting through the time frames. At times it’s difficult to follow which time period we’re in, despite the shifting facial hair of the men and the attempts to make Cruz look quite a bit younger than she is and then a little bit older than she is. It may actually work better as an on-demand experience, where you can rewind or hit pause and consult with a viewing partner.

What works really well: the dynamic between the present-day Gemma and her son, who knows there’s more to the Sarajevo story than his mother has ever revealed, as well as the depictions of the sincere but self-satisfied artists, poets, musicians and protesters who decry violence and oppression — but (in most instances) scatter to the wind when it’s time to resist.

Castelitto and his production team deliver some unforgettably beautiful shots and some painfully tragic images. Remember those gym shoes that would light up when a child would run or click her heels together? They are utilized to heartbreaking effect here.

Whether Gemma’s a dark-haired college student just spreading her wings, or a middle-aged mother with gray in her hair and the weight of time behind her eyes, Penelope Cruz infuses the character with nobility, kindness and a fierce sense of protectiveness when someone she loves is being hurt. Gemma has her faults — as her son almost cruelly points out in one confrontation — but she is a survivor.

You get the feeling that like a Sophia Loren or a Helen Mirren, Cruz is one of those beautiful actresses who will continue to look amazing and will just get more interesting as the decades go by.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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