“MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” (2008) Review
Based upon James McBride’s 2003 novel and directed by Spike Lee, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” told the story about four black soldiers of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division who get trapped near a small Tuscan village on the Gothic Line during the Italian Campaign of World War II, after one of them risks his life to save an Italian boy. The story is inspired by the August 1944 Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre, perpetrated by the Waffen-SS.
Before I saw the movie, I came across a few reviews of the film. Needless to say, it either received mixed or bad reviews. Many critics either found the movie’s plot incoherent or seemed turned off by Lee’s message about the racism encountered by African-American troops during World II. After seeing the movie, I must admit that I also have mixed feelings about it.
Personally, I had no problem with the plot. It started with a the murder of an Italian immigrant by a black U.S. Postal Service in December 1983. Due to the investigations of the New York Police, and a rookie journalist portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the postal worker is revealed to be one of the four American troops who find themselves trapped near the Tuscan village. This same veteran is also discovered to have a piece of Italian sculpture in his possession. As I had stated earlier, most film critics found the plot confusing. Aside from certain scenes that I felt should have been deleted, the plot turned out to be perfectly coherent to me. What Lee did was take certain subplots that focused on the four troops, the inhabitants of the Tuscan village, the Nazi’s search for an AWOL German troop and a group of Italian partisans; and drew them together to form the finale of the movie’s mystery surrounding the veteran-turned-postal worker and the Italian sculpture. I must admit that aside from a few scenes, Lee did an excellent job in bringing this all together.
And the director had a good, solid cast to help him bring this movie together. Derek Luke (“LIONS FOR LAMB” and “ANTWONE FISHER”) and Michael Ealy were especially impressive as the disciplined and tightly coiled Aubrey Stamps and the cynical and slightly bitter Bishop Cummings – who vie for the attentions of a local Italian woman named Renata, portrayed by Valentina Cervi. Laz Alonso gave a solid performance as the Puerto Rican corporal Hector Negron, forced to keep the peace between Stamps and Cummings. I was also impressed by Pierfrancesco Favino as Peppi Grotto, the leader of the local partisan group. Like many other child actors I have noticed in recent years, Matteo Sciabordi surprised me with an excellent performance as the young Angelo Torancelli, who befriends the four soldiers, while trying not to remember the horrible massacre at Sant’Anna di Stazzema. At first I was slightly wary about Omar Benson Miller’s performance as Sam Train, the private who first saves young Angelo in the film’s first half. He came off as rather raw and inexperienced to me. But further along into the film, his performance improved. And I realized that his performance had never been at fault. Only the screenplay written by author McBride. Miller had the unfortunate bad luck to slough his way through some pretty horrible dialogue, early in the film.
Speaking of the dialogue, it turned out to be one of the aspects of the film I barely found tolerable. At least in the movie’s first half hour. I wish that Spike Lee had discovered this lesson a long time ago – never hire the author of the novel you are adapting to write the screenplay. Producer Dan Curtis had also failed to learn this lesson when he hired author Herman Wouk to write “THE WINDS OF WAR” screenplay. As much as I enjoyed how the movie’s plot developed, there were some scenes or pieces of dialogue I could have done without. For example:
*Axis Sally’s attempt to demoralize the black troops crossing an Italian river – despite the scorn heaped upon the dear lady by the black American and German troops alike, I must have spent at least five minutes squirming in my seat. Ugh!
*Private Train’s determination to convince his companions that the young Angelo is blessed with some kind of divine gift. Honestly, his dialogue drove me crazy. James McBride should have been ashamed of himself.
*Sergeant Stamp’s speech about the difficulties of being an African-American soldier during the war
*The flashback featuring the four soldiers’ encounter with a bigoted ice cream parlor owner in Louisiana.
The last two turned out to be perfect examples of another one of the film’s flaws – namely Lee’s heavy-handed portrayal of racism in the U.S. Army, during World War II. A part of me wishes that the director had watched Carl Franklin’s adaptation of “THE DEVIL IN THE BLUE DRESS” (1995). That particular movie was an excellent example of portraying racism in the past, without pounding in the message. Lee, on the other hand, overdid it. He allowed the message to get in the way of the story at least twice. When Stamps received a message from their Southern-born captain to capture a German soldier for question, this sends the usually obedient Stamps into a rant about how black troops were treated. It was simply unnecessary. Lee forgot another rule in filmmaking – you show, not tell. He managed to do that with the troops’ dealings with their Southern-born captain. But he could not stop there. He and McBride also included the flashback in Louisiana . . . something that added nothing to the story’s plot. It felt like a propaganda piece added at the last minute by Lee.
Despite some of the bad dialogue, unnecessary scenes and the ham-fisted message on racism, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA”turned out to be a better film than I had originally perceived. Although the film critics had been correct in some of their complaints, I found it hard to agree with them that the movie’s plot was incoherent. Even before halfway into the story, I understood what McBride and especially Lee were trying to achieve. I say . . . give it a shot. It might surprise you.