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‘Venuto al Mondo’

by Giovanni Fazio

So many films these days seem to be trying their hardest to be the same, their connect-the-dots three-act narratives all carved from the same stone. Then there’s “Venuto al Mondo” (released in English as “Twice Born”), which features a story that flows like a river: shallow here, deep there, a gentle drift until you hit the rapids and it dashes you on the rocks. Predictable it is not.

It starts off with only mild promise, looking like your typical Euro-bourgeois relationship drama: Gemma (Penelope Cruz), a graying married woman with a teenage son from a previous marriage — and believe me, it’s a shock to see Cruz looking frumpy — gets a phone call from an old friend in Bosnia, Gojco (Adnan Haskovic). He invites her to come with her son for the photo exhibition of a “friend,” whom we soon learn was Diego (Emile Hirsch), Gemma’s late husband and love of her life.

Her visit triggers old memories, and in flashback we see Gemma as a young exchange student in then-Yugoslavia for the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, where she first meets Gojco and falls for Diego, a freewheeling American photographer. A passionate affair ensues — much to Gojco’s chagrin; he also fancies Gemma — but the happiness fades into tension when, once married, Gemma finds she cannot have children, although she desperately wants one.

It’s here that “Venuto al Mondo” throws its first curve: Gemma and Diego return to Bosnia years later, where Gojco introduces a musician friend, Aska (Saadet Aksoy), who offers to be a surrogate mother. No one wants to believe the rumors of impending war, but when the siege of Sarajevo breaks out, everything goes to hell, on top of which Gemma is crushed to find Diego seemingly now smitten with Aska. She manages to return to Italy, but Diego, increasingly reckless in his war photography, will not.

Then comes the third act and it will leave you speechless: Director Sergio Castellitto shows how some truths are so painful people can go nearly their whole lives concealing them. It plunges the depths of human depravity only to emerge with a deeply moving example of the kindness and compassion that refuses to be crushed by it.

“Venuto al Mondo,” based on the best-selling novel by Castellitto’s wife, Margaret Mazzantini, isn’t a perfect film: It starts slow, and it has some corny moments — like most Italian cinema, it loves big, passionate emotions — but it builds to perfection in the final reel. Take Hirsch — his performance involves a shift in his character’s behavior that is so extreme and exaggerated you spend a good half hour or so thinking it’s bad acting before the film knocks you upside the head with the reason that explains it perfectly.

It’s Cruz’s film, though, and for the second time — after 2004′s “Non ti Muovere” (“Don’t Move”), a film which Cruz learned Italian to appear in — Castellitto proves he can get the best out of her. She moves from young and carefree to heartbroken and careworn, and never misses a beat, capturing the viewer’s empathy entirely.

For a chance to win one of two “Venuto al Mondo” writing-paper sets, visit jtimes.jp/film.