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Monday, June 20, 2016

Miracle at St. Anna

I continue my seemingly never-ending look at the films of Spike Lee with one of his worst, Miracle at St. Anna, from 2008. Perhaps there is a good film in there somewhere--it's based on a book by a good writer, James McBride, but Lee being Lee, it's way too long and the director is constantly seeking our approval.

The story is about black soldiers in World War II, a topic that is vastly under-represented. The irony of men fighting for a country that treats them like less than human is one that needs to be explored. In Tuscany in 1944, a unit of black soldiers is undermined by their captain, and four men are trapped behind enemy lines. They hole up in a small town with a family, also tending for an orphaned and injured boy. One of them lugs around a statue's head for good luck.

This story is framed by one from Harlem in 1983. One of those soldiers, now a postal worker, recognizes someone in line buying stamps and shoots him dead. A reporter tries to get to the bottom of it. A flashback reveals all.

If the film weren't an ungodly two hours and forty minutes there might have been a decent film here. Lee tries to juggle to many storylines. We are well into the film when we are introduced to new characters, such as a ragtag band of partisans, and a pair of German officers. There is also some gratuitous nudity by Valentina Cervi as an Italian woman who has captured the eye of two of the soldiers (when you hear me complaining about nudity, there's something definitely wrong).

The centerpiece of the film is a massacre of Italian citizens by Nazis at Sant'Anna di Stazzema, which was a true event that I had never heard of. According to the film, Nazis kill an entire churchful of people when looking for an Italian partisan, but this is not precisely the correct history, or so say Italians. In any event, Lee shoots this unflinchingly, even including the bayoneting of a baby.

One can appreciate Lee's thinking here. He wanted to make a war film that highlighted the experience of the Buffalo soldiers but his self-indulgence got in the way, and he made a film that seems to be more about him than his subject.

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