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Miracle at St. Anna (2008) ***1/2

Rated: R
Runtime: 2hr 20min
Director: Spike Lee
Stars: Omar Benson Miller, Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Matteo Sciabordi
Genre: Drama
Language: English, German and Italian with English Subtitles

An Excellent Contribution to the War Movie Genre

In a Nutshell

Plot

Straight as an Arrow
Twisty

Sound Quality

Easy to Hear
Incomprehensible

Who's That?

Few Main Characters
Lots

Naughty Words

Mild
Foul

Naked people

None
Lots

Violence

Tame
Bloody

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Let us quickly dispense with any quibbles that might deter you from seeing Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna.  Yeah, it’s long (160 minutes).  It’s extremely bloody and verbally abusive.   It has a dizzying cast of characters and an intricate storyline that unfolds within an endless flashback that does not fully support a somewhat abrupt and sentimental denouement.

That said – what a terrific movie!   What a gut-wrencher!   What a vision of humanity, with all its beauty and horror.  Spike Lee and writer James McBride achieve a painful, messy, vividly depicted realism that sometimes transcends to lofty fantasy, and sometimes falls into confusion.  So, the product is not perfect.  What is?  Who is?

Certainly not the soon-to-be-victorious Allies crashing, stumbling and blasting their way through the Tuscan countryside in 1944, heroes and bullies, officers and foot soldiers, black and white.   Certainly not the earthy, wary and war-weary villagers and partisans who offer not-so-safe haven to a small band of lost GIs.   Certainly not the Waffen SS who have perpetrated the ghastly Sant’ Anna di Stazzema Massacre that drives the plot.  But, in a moment of courage, one of those German soldiers is the instrument of the miracle that Lee has rendered so magically in this film fable.   Miracle at St. Anna is not about the bad guys and the good guys; it’s about the Bad and the Good.

Angelo, a quintessential Italian street urchin played marvelously by Matteo Sciabordi, is rescued from a barn under siege by a “Chocolate Giant”, Pvt. 1st Class Sam Train.  This fellow collects damaged goods he considers magically potent, like the stone head from a bombed church that hangs awkwardly in a net from his belt.   As a grunt in the 92nd’s segregated Infantry Division, Omar Benson Miller brings dignity, grace and spiritual insight to this character in a performance that alone is worth the ticket.  The tender bond between the little boy and the simple soldier is wordless, empathic, and grounded in a common appreciation of Mystery that differs only in superficial cultural detail.   Their unlikely pairing carries the film’s most positive message.

Other singular performances among many:  Derek Luke as 2nd Staff Sgt. Aubrey Stamps, barely in command of his decimated and virtually abandoned unit; Valentina Cervi as Renata, beautiful and dutiful wife of a missing soldier, making the best and the worst of her situation; Pierfrancesco Pavino as Peppi “the Butterfly”, and Sergio Albelli as Rodolfo, partisans from an isolated and almost “tribal” region whose complex and volatile relationship strikes a familiar note today; there is nothing new under the sun.

Hardly anybody survives in this drama, except for Corporal Hector Negron (well-played by Laz Alonso) who waits years for it to come full circle.   The camera glides down a tidy hallway to his modest Harlem apartment and into the living room where Hector watches a rerun of John Wayne with his white comrades fighting WWII and mutters:  “We fought that war, too.”

Spike Lee’s effort to spotlight African-Americans’ considerable unheralded contribution to the allied victory has given him wider scope to dramatize the violence of racism – and other kinds of violence, too.  Miracle at St. Anna is not just about the triumph of love and honor in these people, or those people  –  it’s about Us.

Lynn McCann's checkered professional life began with dance and has included singing and acting, writing and journalism, teaching and tutoring. A long career as a computer programmer is mercifully behind her and she looks forward to publishing a memoir, a biography, and a popular history of automation technology. She continues to perform as a singer, and leads New York City tours for Elderhostel.

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