Though challengingly long at two hours and forty minutes, a bit more convoluted than is digestible and a mite derivative at junctures, Spike Lee’s “Miracle at St. Anna” is rarely boring. It is, in the very least, a tension-filled WWII movie, Italian campaign, circa 1944. At most, it is a treatise on prejudice.
Unfortunately, while near epic in size, the film never completely moves of its own momentum, as was so sublimely evidenced in the director’s underrated magnum opus, “Malcolm X” (1992). Oddly and ironic considering what some of Mr. Lee’s detractors have opined over the years, this possesses more blunt force than sharp edge.
Matters start with a bang, literally, when, in 1983, a fellow steps up to postal worker Hector Negron’s window and asks for a twenty-cent stamp. Unblinkingly, Mr. Negron pulls out a Luger and shoots the customer point blank in the forehead. Next stop for Negron and The Daily News reporter who smells a story, Bellevue.
Thus begins the unreeling, back to the little village of St. Anna in Tuscany, where four soldiers from the all-black 92nd Infantry Division hunker down. Portrayed in splendid ensemble form, they initially share an uneasy peace with the fearful denizens and ultimately a more tenuous entente with the local partisans. The Germans surround them.
Borrowing from the library of war films, Lee enthusiastically manages his variation on a theme, soon making us feel we are dug in, insular, our tentative lives suddenly more linked with absolute strangers than we’ll ever be connected to anyone else. You’re right in worrying that many of the characters you’ll become enamored of will soon be killed.
Injecting a needed note of whimsy, supernaturalism and sheer quandary, Omar Benson Miller as Private Sam Train, a big bear of a man, adopts and incorporates into his personal odyssey two items. There’s the decapitated head of a Florence bridge statue, and Angelo, a displaced little boy, convincingly realized by Matteo Sciabordi. A bond forms.
It is a sensitive microcosm of black-white relations. Explaining his sudden paternalism, the eternally spiritual Train, in slow, deeply felt manner, tells his cohorts, “I never even touched a white person before.” Director Lee, working from James McBride’s novel, uses the wartime scenario to example and explore a panoply of racially concerned issues.
Helping put this across, each of the four Buffalo Soldiers, WWII version, represents a different stance or tolerance. An incisive moment comes when, speculating what the climate might be like in the U.S. of A. after their triumphant return, one G.I. exhorts, “Things just gotta get better back there; my life depends on it.”
Per Michael Ealy’s cynical and swaggering Sergeant Bishop Cummings, a preacher in peacetime, nothing’s going to change. His sarcasm now further heightened by war, he chants a live-for-the-moment mantra. Questioned about his current lack of religious conviction, the silver-tongued player assures, “When I was preaching, I believed it.”
Less vociferous, positioned as a sort of participant-observer and silent narrator, is Laz Alonso’s Corporal Hector Negron. While dark-skinned, because he’s Puerto Rican the others perceive his stake in matters as slightly different. His Spanish allows him to serve as translator.
Thus the crew is able to converse and soon form relationships with their hesitant hosts. Emblematic of the sociopolitical confusion, Omero Antonutti is the humorously waffling Lodovico, patriarch and resident fascist, or so he contends. He could easily turn in the homegrown partisan hero, Peppi “The Butterfly” Grotta (Pierfrancesco Favino), but nah.
His no-nonsense daughter, the comely Renata (Valentina Cervi), agrees to help the soldiers find an escape route through the mountains. It’s no surprise when two of the Americans are soon vying for her affection. But a sub-plot puts things on hold. They finally receive radio contact from headquarters. “Capture a German,” comes the order.
The purpose is to find out if and when the Nazis are planning a counter offensive. Well, it just so happens that The Butterfly and his hill-dwelling compatriots, with whom the G.I.s have been sharing an anxiety-ridden dinner table of late, have snared just such a commodity. Whether they’re willing to loan him out adds yet another conflict to the mix.
While by no means his main thrust, it is commendable that the director pays homage to the actual Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre of August 12, 1944. However, by combining it with the racial problem at home he pretentiously wraps all the world’s evil into one big, unwieldy ball. It makes for tough stuff, with hope for a better future the only silver lining.
No matter how good the cause, viewers like a little gratification whilst still in their seats. Lee makes much better films than this. Although doubtless heartfelt, his “Miracle at St. Anna” proves phenomenal only in its ordinariness.
“Miracle at St. Anna,” rated R, is a Touchstone Pictures release directed by Spike Lee and stars Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso and Omar Benson Miller. Running time: 160 minutes
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