TIFF Review: 'Twice Born'

Twice Born (Venuto Al Mondo)
(Italy/Spain, 127 min.)
Dir. Sergio Castellitto, Writ. Sergio Castellitto, Margaret Mazzantini
Starring: Penélope Cruz, Emile Hirsch, Adnan Haskovic, Saadet Aksoy, Pietro Castellitto, Luca De Filippo, Sergio Castellitto.
What does it mean to be a mother? Twice Born, based on the novel of the same name by Margaret Mazzantini, tackles the questions of family ties in a beautiful, sensual epic drama. Set against the backdrop of the Bosnian war, Twice Born finds life amidst death.

Penélope Cruz stars as Gemma, an Italian woman whose son was born in Sarajevo amidst gunfire and bombings. His father, an American photographer named Diego (Emile Hirsch), was killed at the time, but Gemma and their son, Pietro, made it back to Rome safely. Gemma has since remarried Giuliano (played by director/co-writer Sergio Castellitto) during the sixteen years that have passed since the war.

Gemma goes back to Sarajevo when she receives a phone call from Gojko (Adnan Haskovic), whom she met on her first trip to Bosnia during her student years. Gemma learns that a selection of Diego's photography is scheduled to be displayed at a gallery in Sarajevo. Called back by the past, Gemma returns and brings Pietro (Pietro Castellitto) along for the journey on a sort of birthright in which he can learn about his roots and the father he never knew.

The backdrop of the war during the flashback scenes provides a powerful counterpoint to Gemma and Diego's struggle to create a family. A loving but childless couple, Gemma and Diego return to Sarajevo in an attempt to succeed via cheap in vitro fertilization. The couple first met in Sarajevo through Gojko during Gemma's research trip, and the beautiful Sarajevo setting gave them a romantic background to fall in love. Now that the country is on the brink of war, though, their homecoming to Sarajevo alters their life in profound, unsettling ways.

Much like Mazzantini's beautiful novel, Twice Born weaves between past and present as Gemma relives her years with Diego. Told in a languid, fragmentary series of episodes, Gemma's revisit to the haunts of her past is fleeting and surreal. Amidst the shell-shocked Bosnians and war-torn ruins, Twice Born enlivens an operatic mix of romantic sensuality and disquieting horror. Co-written by Mazzantini herself, Twice Born retains the author’s keen attention to detail on the poverty of war. From the accounts of how to evade snipers to the gruesome deeds performed by the soldiers, Twice Born vividly realizes the kind of actions that Hannah Arendt surely condemned in her analysis of the banality of evil.

While the war scenes in Bosnia are a harrowing experience (both for Gemma and for the viewer), the real hell is what comes after. The aftermath of Gemma and Diego’s involvement with the Bosnian survivors leaves irreparable emotional scars on them both. They’re visible in the deep red rings that encircle Diego’s eyes. One cannot help but be transformed by war. Gemma, on the other hand, is wholly fixated on the battle of motherhood. As she witnesses firsthand the destruction of families, all she can think of is starting one herself. A child represents the future for Gemma, but the Bosnian war gives birth only to horror.

The narrative structure makes clear that Gemma succeeds in emerging from the war a proud mother, but the circumstances of Pietro’s birth inadvertently shatter the joy of motherhood. These wounds heal for Gemma, but the final revelation at the end of Twice Born cuts deeply. As with the novel, though, Twice Born carefully intertwines the horrors of war with stories of love. One might not trump the other, but the delicate mix creates a harmonious catharsis. The reveal on the truth of Gemma’s family creates a sense of release – a rebirth, if you will – of the burdens that she and others have carried since the war.

This lyrical adaptation of Twice Born voices the same anger and urgency that spoke so clear on the pages of the book. Working with co-writer/director Sergio Castellitto (Mazzantini's husband), Twice Born marks the second page-to-screen outing of the author’s work. The first, 2004's heartbreaking Don't Move, also featured a collaboration between Castellitto and leading actress Penélope Cruz. Cruz performs as well under the direction of Castellitto as she does with her frequent collaborator Pedro Almodóvar. Don't Move features my personal favorite of Cruz's performances and her heartrending turn as Gemma is equally moving. Cruz also deserves top marks for shedding her red carpet looks and appearing grey-haired and dowdy during Gemma's elder years (but Cuz still looks beautiful with wrinkles). She gives strong, natural work with co-start Emile Hirsch. The rest of the supporting cast is equally compelling with Saadet Aksoy giving especially strong work as Aska, the ill-fated surrogate who lends her womb to the couple. In her final scene with Cruz, Aksoy helps deliver the strongest blow in Twice Born.

Central to the power of the film is the question of Gemma’s authority as a mother, which is sure to divide audiences during the crosscut temporal shifts of the film. By the end of Twice Born, however, viewers will surely be shedding a tear and agreeing that different forms of motherhood exist, and that Gemma’s love for her son is honest and true. Greeted with a much-deserved standing ovation and cries of “bravo!” following its premiere at Royal Thomson Hall during the Toronto International Film Festival, Twice Born is a startling and haunting work of art.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Twice Born will be released in Canada in 2013 by eOne Films.
UPDATE (25/2/2014): Twice Born is now available on iTunes.