Review: Miracle at St. Anna
2.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
“Miracle at St. Anna,” about (at its buried core) a group of wrongly forgotten black American soldiers trapped in Tuscany, Italy during WWII, feels like a story that needs to be told. Spike Lee, ever the brilliant puppeteer of probing controversies and racial tensions, seems like the right person to tell it. A funny thing must have happened on the way to the set because this convoluted genre milkshake – a pseudo-satirical religious fantasy swirled up inside a grisly war epic – is, dizzyingly, just about everything but a comfortable fit.
Working from a script by James McBride (who adapted his novel of the same name), Lee gives us a strange cluster of many different films, all crammed into one. We begin in Harlem in 1983, where an aged postal worker has just inexplicably shot a man with a German Luger in broad daylight. When the cops search the perp.'s apartment, they find out he's a decorated war veteran and also discover the head of a 450-year-old Italian statue in his closet. A rookie reporter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gets access to the man's prison cell and starts questioning him in an attempt to connect the dots. So, it's a mystery/thriller? Not really.
We flash back to 1944, where members of the US Army's 92nd Buffalo Soldier Division trudge through a swampy battlefield in Italy. They exchange familiar jokes. They're taunted, via radio, by the voice of a cunning German woman who tells them of America's disdain for blacks and offers them fried chicken and grits in exchange for their surrender. Suddenly, bullets and missiles start flying, people start dying, and there are numerous gratuitous shots of detached limbs and bloody bodies. So, it's an intentionally funny B-picture? Not so fast.
Four of the soldiers end up behind enemy lines. There's Staff Sgt. Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy – who gives the film's best performance), Cpl. Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), and Pvt. Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), who carries the statue head from the beginning in a sack on his hip and rubs it for luck. The crew holes up in a rebel village, but not before rescuing an orphaned, 8-year-old child named Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi) who bonds with Train and, apparently, has magical powers ordained by God. There's also a group of Italian freedom fighters, a pack of Germans who are introduced like James Bond villains (thanks to Terence Blanchard's ludicrous score), and enough eventual bloodshed to paint the whole town red. So, it's a war movie after all? Not exactly.
Throughout his career, Lee has shown an uncanny ability to make his viewers profoundly uncomfortable, causing them to confront and reflect upon issues they may not often think about. (I can vividly remember my first screening of his 2000 satire, “Bamboozled,” in film school: me, a somewhat ignorant white kid in a room full of mostly black students, on the verge of tears after the film's climactic barrage of potent images.) Here, the discomfort created is not provocative but utterly perplexing. The story is surprisingly easy to follow, and Lee ties up its many loose ends, but the multiple tonal shifts overshadow any shot at clarity. After most scenes, it's hard to know whether to laugh, cry, or even care about what just happened.
I counted only three instances in which I took this film seriously and, through which, I saw the Spike Lee I know shine. The first is a flashback within the flashback (there are a few of those), when the group recalls an incident at a Louisiana diner that caused them to defend themselves against prejudice. The second is a simultaneous prayer sequence voiced by three separate parties that employs Lee's trademark direct address. The third is the infamous massacre at Sant'Anna di Stazzema (the place of the title), which Lee unabashedly depicts in devastating detail, right down to the last slaughtered child.
It's in such affecting moments that the director's admirable intention of unearthing lost truths comes to light. Too bad his execution pulls us in so many directions that, by the end, we feel like rubber. “St. Anna” is constructed with such a dumbfounding, scatter-brained inconsistency that, had it been directed by a first-time filmmaker, I'd be tempted to label that person as either a genius or a psycho. Well, I've seen enough of Lee's work to know that he's close to genius – the man also teaches film at NYU and Columbia – but too much of his latest project borders on crazy. The only miracle is that I got through the whole thing with my sanity intact.