Striptease-structured narratives—the kind where characters’ motivations and backgrounds are revealed bit-by-bit, with the most crucial stuff saved for the final scenes—require finesse. More often than not, they backfire, over-teasing the final reveal—invariably some kind of past trauma—until it can’t help but underwhelm. Sometimes, as in the case of Sergio Castellitto’s multilingual, multinational melodrama Twice Born, the problem is that the tease itself isn’t enticing. One hundred minutes of snooze-inducing troubled romance eventually gives way to a strange, interesting backstory. It doesn’t manage to recast the preceding feature’s worth of movie in a different light, but instead makes the viewer wish the film had gotten to the end sooner.
Told mostly in flashback, Twice Born begins with an Italian woman named Gemma (Penélope Cruz) taking a trip to Sarajevo with her teenage son, Pietro. Gemma’s husband, an upstanding Carabinieri officer named Giuliano, isn’t Pietro’s father, a fact that embarrasses the boy. (Pietro Castellitto, the director’s son, plays Pietro and Castellitto plays Giuliano. The two look exactly alike, which creates some unintentional visual-narrative dissonance.) For Gemma, the trip is a chance to visit old friends, show her son the city where he was born, and to remember her first husband, a grungy American photographer named Diego (Emile Hirsch).
Gemma and Diego’s relationship is a textbook rocky movie marriage, with a whirlwind romance giving way to work-commitment conflicts and suspicions of infidelity. As such, it faces a problem common to troubled marriage stories: It tends to focus on patterns and crisis points, which puts the day-to-day part of the relationship out of focus. The result is near-non-stop conflict, the passing of years indicated only by Cruz’s hairstyle changing from feathered to backcombed to a Rachel and then a gray-streaked bob. At one point, Castellitto’s Around A Small Mountain co-star Jane Birkin shows up in a cameo as a psychologist. Tears well up in her eyes as she tells Gemma and Diego what wonderful parents they will be. Unable to show the marriage as a functioning relationship, the movie resorts to having a great actress tell the audience about it.
The Siege Of Sarajevo—conveyed through slow-motion shots of civilians running from gunfire while Max Richter’s “Sarajevo” plays on the soundtrack—provides the backdrop for the final years of Gemma and Diego’s relationship. This is less problematic than it sounds, in part, because that climactic reveal—the teased trauma—is explicitly about the Bosnian War and its effect on people who are not Gemma or Diego. To get to it, though, the viewer has to slog through countless scenes of the two people sulking and arguing, while warfare is tastefully represented in the background.