Twice Born, a depressing melodrama with epic ambitions, follows Gemma (Penélope Cruz) as she returns with her son, Pietro (Pietro Catellitto), to a now-peaceful Sarajevo after having left her war-torn homeland 16 years ago with him in her arms. The film toggles between present-day scenes depicting the mother and son’s complicated relationship and flashes of the tragic love affair between Gemma and Diego (Emile Hirsch) in the early 1990s that led to Pietro’s conception. The boy’s birth was the product of rather bizarre and secretive circumstances that places his biological kinship under suspicion, and the point of Gemma’s trip is to reveal to him the truth about his filiation, but it turns out that she herself only knows half the story, if not less.
Gemma and Diego’s mad love is the sort that only seems possible in Europe, or in European movies, and even more likely during war time, where passion means not making plans, instead of marriage and babies. The beginning of their story has the gravitas of the destine-bound love at the center of Julio Medem’s Lovers of the Artic Circle, but none of its focus, as Twice Born quickly turns out to be more interested in reveling in the secrets of its storyline than in its sentiments. Gemma and Diego grow apart as she discovers she can’t have children and is scared that her sterility will make him chase other women. While Medem’s film inhabits the confines of its love story with hermetic discipline, Sergio Castellitto’s film flirts with the incredibly touching romance with the Bosnian war as mere background, but it then takes the war more seriously by reducing the romance to a series of excessive narrative twists not unlike Incendies.