The one positive thing that can be said about "Twice Born," thesp-helmer Sergio Castellitto's adaptation of his wife Margaret Mazzantini's novel, is that the luridly plotted melodrama also plays as one onscreen.

The one positive thing that can be said about “Twice Born,” thesp-helmer Sergio Castellitto’s adaptation of his wife Margaret Mazzantini’s novel, is that the luridly plotted melodrama also plays as one onscreen. Overwrought, unevenly acted and plowing through the Siege of Sarajevo with blinkers on (it’s never even clear who’s fighting whom and for what reason), this mostly English-language tale about the difficulties of parenthood and loving photographers in wartime has little to offer beyond some pitiful twists. Odd, chemistry-free pairing of Penelope Cruz and Emile Hirsch won’t set the B.O. alight beyond Italy, where the book was a bestseller.

Top Italo actor Castellitto’s second directorial effort, 2004′s “Don’t Move,” was also based on a Mazzantini novel and starred Cruz as an ordinary-looking Albanian in what remains one of her most transformative (if least widely seen) perfs. But that film’s potent mix of melodrama and grit is conspicuously absent here.

Cruz stars as Gemma, an Italian who speaks English with a fat Spanish accent, and who lives in Rome with her law-enforcement partner, Giuliano (Castellitto). Gemma is middle-aged, as the bags under her eyes and gray streaks in her wig signal in wannabe-merciless closeups (the Spanish diva looks ready for one of those deglammed-but-still-glamorous Elle covers). But much of the film shows a younger Gemma in flashbacks, which are triggered by her visit to the Bosnian city of Sarajevo with her sullen teen son, Pietro (Pietro Castellitto), who was born there.

Though the thesps’ surnames might suggest otherwise, Pietro is not Giuliano’s offspring, but rather the result of Gemma’s relationship with a puppy-faced shutterbug, Diego (Hirsh), whom she first met at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Bosnia ; the two suffered together through some of the Yugoslav Wars before the photog’s untimely death.

The film’s conception of Diego, who was a Genoese character in the novel, is its most problematic element. Making Diego a Yank in former Yugoslavia ensures a lot of the dialogue is in Euro-pudding English. And by casting the young-looking Hirsch as the male lead, the lovers’ age difference becomes even more glaring, which works against the film’s central notion that Diego and Gemma were not only a couple, but also desperately wanted kids.

Despite a proto-hipster effort at facial hair, Hirsch here looks like a kid himself, something not aided by Diego’s gratingly happy-go-lucky ways, which further reduce him to an immature man-child. At one point, he states he’s simply so happy because “he can’t stand being sad,” a philosophy he at least refrains from stating out loud to the people of Sarajevo while their city is blown to pieces.

Cutting between Pietro and the middle-aged Gemma in postwar Sarajevo and the flashbacks and revelations surrounding Pietro’s birth, the pic tries but fails to place a horrifying, small-scale human story in the larger context of an ethno-political struggle. The ace production design by Francesco Frigeri (“The Passion of the Christ”) can’t be faulted, but his burning, bombed-out Bosnian capital is a generic theater of war, since co-scribes Mazzantini and Castellitto never even vaguely hint at what kind of conflict was tearing the region apart, or credibly suggest why an Italo-American couple would stick around to be a part of it.

The sole complications that remain for the characters are those thrown up by the intentionally abstruse plotting, intended to keep auds and some of the characters in the dark about the final stretch’s shocking revelations, which come off as a cynical attempt to shoehorn the horrors of war into a generic who’s-your-daddy mystery.

Through it all, Cruz provides more of an emotional anchor than the material warrants, even if there’s never any spark between her and Hirsch; witnessing their loves scenes is akin to watching two pieces of meat lie next to each other in a butcher shop. The rest of the cast is lost in the maze of complications, though Turkish thesp Saadet Aksoy impresses in a supporting role as a spunky Yugoslav local.

With the exception of the score, which is as fragmented as the narrative, tech package is slick.

Twice Born

Italy-Spain

Production

A Medusa Film (in Italy) release of a Picomedia, Alien Produzioni, Medusa Film, Telecinco Cinema, Mod Producciones production, in association with Sky Cinema, Mediaset Premium. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Sergio Castellitto, Roberto Sessa. Executive producers, Penelope Cruz, Moira Mazzantini. Co-producers, Ghislain Barrois, Jaime Ortiz, Alvaro Augustin, Fernando Bovaira, Simon de Santiago. Directed by Sergio Castellitto. Screenplay, Margaret Mazzantini, Castellitto, based on the novel by Mazzantini.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Gianfilippo Corticelli; editor, Patrizio Marone; music, Eduardo Cruz; production designer, Francesco Frigeri; costume designer, Sonu Mishra; sound, Maurizio Argentieri; special effects supervisor, Paola Trisoglio; line producers, Ornella Bernabei, Guido de Laurentiis; assistant directors, Alessandro Pascuzzo, Bojana Sutic; casting, Laura Mauccino, Timka Grahic. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations), Sept. 11, 2012. (Also in San Sebastian Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 130 MIN.

With

Penelope Cruz, Emile Hirsch, Adnan Haskovic, Saadet Aksoy, Pietro Castellitto, Luca de Filippo, Jane Birkin, Sergio Castellitto, Mira Furlan, Jovan Diviak. (Italian, English, Bosnian dialogue)

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more