By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published October 2, 2008
In “Miracle at St. Anna,” director Spike Lee creates a moving, if flawed, portrait of the horrors of war. Based on a novel by James McBride, the film presents the action on the Italian front during World War II through a variety of perspectives, but stays true to its own moral code.
The film tells the story of four young soldiers, friends and members of the all-black “Buffalo Soldier” division fighting in Tuscany. These four young men become separated from the rest of their unit due to the stubbornness and incompetence of their commanding officer. They are forced to fend for themselves and try to find their own way to safety. The situation is complicated when one of the men rescues and befriends a young boy trapped in the conflict.
The group is taken in by the citizens of a nearby town. Besieged by the Nazis, the townspeople are fighting their own battles between those still sympathetic to the Fascist cause and those who have put their faith in the freedom-fighting Partisans. Sheltering four black American soldiers and a refugee child does not improve their situation, and things become even more dangerous when the soldiers receive orders that they must capture a German soldier and return with him to their unit.
The story of the war is framed by a mystery. The film opens in the 1980s, when one of the soldiers, seemingly a model citizen looking forward to a peaceful retirement, suddenly commits a cold-blooded murder. The end of the film gives viewers the satisfying resolution of the case.
Lee attempts to tell his story on many levels: a gee-whiz murder mystery seen through the eyes of a cub reporter, a complex war epic of love and loss, and an historical drama about the injustices encountered by black soldiers during World War II. Unfortunately, he seems to be trying to do too many things at once, and the film tends to wander when it should be focused. Although there is an obvious climax to the action, the film never builds to it; instead, it wanders from episode to episode, then seems to stumble upon the horrific, disturbing scenes that form the central core of the story.
If the whole of “Miracle at St. Anna” is not quite all it should be, many of its parts are very effective. The film presents Christianity and Catholicism in a consistently positive light. During the horrific depiction of a massacre, the victims take solace in their faith in God, and a heroic priest attempts to sacrifice himself for his flock. In the story of the four soldiers, Hector, who always wears a crucifix to remind him who his Father is, gains admiration for his devotion to his faith, and he passes that faith on to others. There are hints throughout the film that the boy, Angelo, is responsible for several small but miraculous occurrences. He, in fact, could be called the real miracle of St. Anna. The most positive moments in the film come at the emotional and touching conclusion, when the movie clearly shows how faith has helped some of the characters abide and survive sometimes desperate circumstances.
Lee is also on solid ground when he demonstrates the racism faced by the fighting “Buffalo Soldiers,” often from the very people they are fighting to protect. In one stunning moment, the rule-abiding Stamps realizes that he feels more of a free man among the Tuscan townsfolk than he does in his native America because they do not judge him based on the color of his skin, and he is understandably taken aback by this insight.
The settings and the cinematography, often stunning, completely capture the bleak beauty of the war-torn countryside. The performances are all first rate; most astonishing is Matteo Sciabordi, who makes his feature film debut in “Miracle at St. Anna.” As the boy, Angelo, Sciabordi is charming and impish when necessary but also demonstrates the terrified depths of someone who has seen the horrific face of war. The men who play the soldiers are also standouts. Omar Benson Miller is touching as Train, the gentle giant who understands truths that others do not see. Laz Alonso is extremely appealing as the even-keeled Hector, whose faith is his guide. Michael Ealy plays the flashy Bishop and Derek Luke is the stalwart Stamps; these two play off each other as opposites and rivals.
“Miracle at St Anna” is not always an easy film to watch. It is often violent and brutal, and it loses focus at times. As bleak as the story gets, however, it never loses the spark of hope, it never forgets its own moral code, and the images it produces are difficult to forget.
Editor’s Note: In giving the film a rating of A-III, suitable for adults, the USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting specifies that the film contains intense combat violence with gore, nongraphic sexual activity, nudity, adultery, rough and crude language, profanity and racial slurs.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and film enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.