TIFF: Penelope Cruz and Julianne Moore shine in “Born” and “Maisie”

TWICE BORN (***)…This Italian-Spanish co-production began as a time filler for me, in between screenings with little else to do, I thought a Penelope Cruz would be interesting. Turns out it was much more than merely interesting, the picture was a powerful study of a terrible time in recent history. Set against the backdrop of the Balkan Wars in the early 90’s, the film moves easily between 1984 shortly before the Winter Olympics in 1984 and present day. Returning to Bosnia to see a series of photographs taken by her then boyfriend Diego (Emile Hirsch), brings back a flood of memories to Gemma, who believes she knows the story about her son, but only in opening up her mind and not judging the people who were with her does she learn the terrible truths. She adores Diego, an American photojournalist and the fact they cannot conceive is a great disappointment to her. When Diego arranges for a surrogate (so he says), Gemma has no idea of the woman’s background or that of the child, and she will come to learn that no matter how horrific a life begins, there is still a chance for goodness, for hope for decency. Gemma will come to learn that Diego’s greatest act was getting she and the newborn baby out of the country, saving both of their lives (she and the child) allowing for them to have a chance at life. The picture looks unflinchingly at the war-torn country, the acts of horror that seem random and so inhuman, and as often happens in war, acts of immense courage that surprise us.

Cruz is very good in the role of Gemma, giving a strong and sensitive performance as a woman willing to forgive, willing to accept for the greater good. She loves her son with a passion she cannot describe, with a loyalty she cannot control, and the more she learns about him, the greater the depth of love. Hirsch is equally fine as Diego, though one scene in which he actually hides from murderous soldiers while they gang rape a young girl left me shocked. On one hand, would you make yourself known to gun-toting maniacs or do what Diego does, which is go after the terrified, brutalized girl later? The moment shocked me, perhaps because we are conditioned to watching acts of heroism in our war films, and not used to seeing what likely would happen. Like it or not, it colored what I thought of Hirsch’s character and might do the same for you. There are no easy answers in this film, nothing comes easy for these people, but they pick themselves up and carry on. Such is life.

WHAT MAISIE KNEW (***)…Divorce is always hardest on the children they say, and having known families to go through a divorce, be it amicable or not, it is indeed the kids who pay the price. Think about it. Their whole world is their parents and when that suddenly is ripped apart, what are they to think? Everything that made them safe has been ripped open, and they must panic and wonder what is coming next. This powerful film gives a surprisingly honest look at a divorce and the behavior of the parents profoundly impacts Maisie, their daughter. Not since Shoot the Moon (1982) have I been witness to such an honest, strong film about this difficult subject.

Susanna (Julianne Moore) is a self absorbed rock and roll icon married to Beale (Steve Coogan) a rather distracted art dealer who seems bewildered by his wife’s career and fame. Drawn to other people as their lives grow more and more separate, they divorce, much to the anger of their little girl, who ends up a pawn and bargaining tool between the parents and their new partners. Observant, and angry, Maisie begins to understand how terrible the behavior of the adults in her really is. She misses nothing, the fact her mom can carry on an argument but forgets to pay for the pizza she has ordered, she watches her Dad shamelessly flirt with her nanny, and she figures out, perhaps before they do, that Mom and Dad are bad together. Dad will marry the nanny, while her mother latches on to a young bartender named Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard) and begins to attack him for getting along with the little girl. As she watches the new relationships fall apart she realizes that perhaps she cannot rust any adult, as those closest to her continue to let her down. She wonders if she can find a new family of her very own, of her own creation.

The filmmakers, Scott McGehee and David Siegel are very fortunate to have found little Onata Aprile who is a wonder as the six-year-old Maisie. Precocious without being coy, intelligent without being a super kid, she is a very wise little girl, an old soul, and we see the film largely through her eyes. There is honesty to her work, one that comes with many child actors, that she might never equal, but what a pleasure it was to see it at least this once. She steals the movie.

Julianne Moore is superb as always as a selfish woman who truly believes she loves her daughter, but cannot really do it because it would involve impacting her career which is first and foremost in her life. Being devoted to a child is a lot of work, and she is simply not prepared to do that. It is a bold performance in that she is not always the best mother, or even the best person, something audiences often struggle with, but it is an honest and strong performance, one of her very best.

I quite liked Skarsgard, so good on HBO’s True Blood, as the bartender Lincoln, who is a good friend to Maisie, even though she suspects he will not be around long. He dutifully picks her up after school, is with her more than her mother, and they develop a nice relationship that must be tough for Maisie to see end. Her mother’s reaction to the friendship between the child and Lincoln was surprising in that she seems jealous but then makes a comment that he does not score extra points for making her fall in love with him. Cruel is the only way to describe that. Steve Coogan did not have a great deal to do in the film’s most underwritten role, but does his best with what he is given. One gets the feeling he wants to be a decent Dad but is too wrapped up in fighting with his wife, and then his ex-wife.

Overall the film impressed me with its manner of allowing us to see the happenings through the child’s eyes. Far too many films about divorce talk the talk about it being hardest on the kids without giving the kids a voice. Not here. The six year old is wiser than any one of the adults.