This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 14th July 2013
She’s not just a pretty face, that Penelope Cruz. She’s a very fine actress who can twinkle her way through an Almodovar film, thrust her comely bosom at Woody Allen, and then convince as a middle-aged mother whose furrowed brow and elegantly greying hair belies a devastating past.
Cruz portrays a bit of all of the above in Twice Born, the riveting tale of a mother who takes her teenage son back to his birthplace in Sarajevo and inevitably confronts her own demons about her life there nearly two decades earlier.
As a young traveller, Gemma fell madly in love with American Diego (indie darling Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild), and their passionate affair ran like a thread through the Bosnian War in the early 90s. Years later, Gemma is married peaceably until a phone call prompts a reckoning with history.
Based on the novel by Margaret Mazzantini, the story has been faithfully dramatised by Italian film-maker Sergio Castellitto (Mazzantini’s husband, and whose son, Pietro, delivers an extraordinary performance as Gemma’s son). The cast includes Yugoslavs, Turks and Italians, with the dialogue dipping effortlessly between languages, and the war-torn setting is devastatingly realised.
This “issues movie” sometimes feels a little mixed in tone, juggling the question of identity with the backdrop of war. But the film’s strengths are manifold, with universally excellent performances (if Hirsch’s character grates to begin with, the later revelations justify his behaviour) and a fast-paced, gripping narrative that will twist a knife between your ribs right up until the closing moments.