Miracle at St. Anna

Movie Information

The Story: During World War II, four African-American G.I.s and a young wounded boy with a secret get stranded behind Nazi lines in a small Italian village. The Lowdown: A sprawling, ambitious, often unwieldy work from Spike Lee that rises above its challenges through its own singular uniqueness.
Score:

Genre: War Drama
Director: Spike Lee
Starring: Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Valentina Cervi
Rated: R

The vast majority of the reviews of Spike Lee’s latest film, Miracle at St. Anna, are negative. Words like “mess,” “excess” and “jumbled” pepper most of them. And while all of this is true—St. Anna is a lumbering, unwieldy behemoth of a movie—the film just happens to be wrapped up in more aspiration and moxie than anything else in theaters right now, by a long shot. No, it’s not perfect. But it’s a case of the sum being greater than the whole of its parts, and it’s the kind of movie that will stick with you. It’s not a film made for passive viewers, and at 160 minutes it’s not an easy trip. For those reasons alone, many people will likely hate it. But for those who allow themselves to be fascinated by a wholly personal, ambitious work—by an honestly singular talent in film working outside the realm of demographics and focus groups—they will be rewarded with one of the most daring and intriguing films so far this year.

In some ways, the film can be seen as a companion piece to Lee’s last feature, the much more accessible and financially successful Inside Man (2006). It’s Lee again taking an established genre—with Inside Man, the heist flick, and here, the war movie—and making it a Spike Lee joint. Set in Italy during the waning months of World War II, St. Anna attempts to show—at least in part—the contribution of African-American soldiers. However, the movie isn’t just a simple history of America’s Buffalo Soldiers, the first all-black regiments in the U.S. Army, during WWII.

Instead, Lee aims higher than that. The film opens sometime after WWII with a murder committed by a mild-mannered postal worker and decorated war veteran named Hector Negron (Laz Alonso, This Christmas), who shoots a customer he appears to recognize. With no apparent motive, the police search Negron’s apartment only to find the head of a priceless Italian statue that has been missing since the war. And when a wet-behind-the-ears beat reporter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Lookout) gets the chance to question Negron about the statue head, all he has to say is he’s “the only one who remembers.”

From here, the movie flashes back to wartime Italy and a group of Buffalo Soldiers, made up of a young Negron, the dependable Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), the smooth talking Bishop (Michael Ealy, Barbershop) and the big, oafish goof Train (Omar Benson Miller, 8 Mile). Since this is a Spike Lee movie, the subject of race—here, racism on the part of the U.S. military and America in general—is an obvious issue within the film, and the crux for much of it. But at the same time, the film touches on so much more than that. Once Train befriends a young injured Italian boy named Angelo (newcomer Matteo Sciabordi), who calls Train his “chocolate giant,” the film becomes almost whimsical. Strange occurrences and small “miracles” start to happen, much in the same spirit as Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), only less fanciful.

As the soldiers make their way to a small Italian village for refuge, the film becomes even more complex and involved, and includes: the family of an aging fascist and his daughter, a group of Italian terrorists, a war-weary Nazi commander with a love of poetry, an AWOL German and Angelo’s seemingly invisible friend, Arturo. All of this ties in, somehow, to a massacre committed by the Germans at an Italian church called St. Anna’s, and, in due course, the murder at the beginning of the film.

Little is spelled out (Ken Hanke and I have been debating for days now what, exactly, the miracle at St. Anna is, and I’ve only now gotten a workable theory on it). The film’s final—and ultimately odd and surreal—scene could be debated, analyzed and interpreted ad nauseam if one were so inclined. Yes, it’s a film about race. But it’s also about spirituality, the finality and suddenness of death, the nature of people and human relationships. Sure, there’s the occasional feeling that Lee has bitten off more than he can chew, but just the fact that he fearlessly started gnawing in the first place within an industry mired in safe bets and marketability is both worthy of admiration and attention. Rated R for strong war violence, language and some sexual content/nudity.

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8 thoughts on “Miracle at St. Anna

  1. Ken Hanke

    Did Ken Hanke enjoy this film?

    Very much. I realize it’s a film that’s gotten a lot of crtitical grief, but I think it’s a fine piece of work. Is it flawed? Yes, I think so, but it’s a film where I thought even the flaws were interesting — and the fact that it’s a personal work that’s clearly not been compromised by being subjected to endless focus groups and demographic studies makes it rather refreshing these days.

  2. Louis

    Did Ken Hanke enjoy this film?

    Very much. I realize it’s a film that’s gotten a lot of crtitical grief, but I think it’s a fine piece of work. Is it flawed? Yes, I think so, but it’s a film where I thought even the flaws were interesting—and the fact that it’s a personal work that’s clearly not been compromised by being subjected to endless focus groups and demographic studies makes it rather refreshing these days.

    Rightly or wrongly, Lee calls Eastwood out by angrily asking (paraphrasing): Where are/were the black soldiers in LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA? LETTERS is a piece of crap to be sure, Eastwood’s skin color, and those of the movie’s actors, notwithstanding. Nevertheless, the provoked Eastwood tells Lee (paraphrasing) he should: Shut his face. One good turn deserves another.

    I guess it’s a stroke of luck that McBride had a black father, though his mother was white. Conveniently, this makes him “qualfied” enough to have written the novel on which MIRACLE is based, right?

    And, as if reliably entering from stage left directly on cue, Lee offers MIRACLE up to us to demonstrate how it’s done properly. Exactly who is the audience for Lee’s more “qualfied” WWII “black soldiers” story? Focus groups and demographic studies are moot–there is NO audience and Touchstone/Walt Disney know it w/o going through the futile paces. Anyway, Eastwood already proved this with LETTERS, didn’t he? I wonder if MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA is a more personal piece of filmmaking than LETTERS was for Eastwood?

    Incidentally, Lee essentially did the same thing to Norman Jewison when Jewison set out to direct MALCOLM X–i.e, (paraphrasing): How can a white guy possibly understand the “black” personal experience enough to tell Malcolm X’s story? It’s widely held that Lee’s imbecilic protest is the reason Jewison left the movie, leaving us in Lee’s more “qualfied” hands. To be fair, I find MALCOLM X to be one of Lee’s best movies.

    It should be noted that, at this point, the contemporary thematic bookend to MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA is GLORY–i.e., black soldiers pressed into battle during the American Civil War. Hmmm? Directed by Edward Zwick, you’re run-of-the-mill caucasion. He even graduated from the “whitest-of-white” higher learning institutions, and the oldest in the U.S., Harvard. Yet, history has been deservedly kind to GLORY. Starting with, if memory serves correctly (?), Lee-regular Denzil Washington earning a Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in it.

    Between HE GOT GAME and SUMMER OF SAM I attended a lecture that Lee gave at Appalachian State. He spoke for 90 minutes or so, followed by a Q&A;.

    What do I remember most about the topics he spoke on? At that time Tarantino was the hot new kid on the block. Mr. Lee spent a significant amount of time deriding Tarantino for writing dialogue in his movies, in particular JACKIE BROWN, that had Samuel L. Jackson uttering racial epithets in every other word of dialogue. When asked by a member of the audience to what extent the actor bore personal responsibility for the words he chose to utter on film, Lee responded by saying (a direct quote), “Sam Jackson is going to say what he needs to say to get paid.” Lee’s observation being made after he used Tarantino as a bit-part actor in GIRL 6. Ok?

    None of this, of course, should diminish the effect, or impact, of the art that Lee shepherds to the screen. It’s not that he injects race into his art. Because he does, and that’s fine, even admirable in this day and age, as Souther’s review points out. It’s the mutually exclusive manner in which he does it. As if more than one artistic interpretation, irrespective of skin colors, can’t co-exist in the marketplace. It’s a movie, not a documentary or a self-contained history lesson.

    When the follow up to INSIDE MAN–the inspiringly entitled INSIDE MAN 2–hits theaters as planned in 2010, let’s start a grass roots campaign that the film should be helmed by a “qualified” bank robber.

    I’m alone in this sentiment, right?

  3. Ken Hanke

    I’m alone in this sentiment, right?

    Alone? Not necessarily. Do you take it further than I would? Yes. You also draw some conclusions I wouldn’t, and praise one film (Glory) I can’t even sit through, while I found Letters from Iwo Jima to be one of Eastwood’s better movies, though it probably seemed better than it was coming after Flags of Our Fathers. As for Eastwood proving that there was no audience for a film like this seems kind of irrelevant, since Letters (which has the secondary burdens of being subtitled and about the enemy forces) and St. Anna are hardly comparable movies. (If memory serves, Flags didn’t set the box office on fire either, not even grossing back its budget, let alone breaking even.)

    Also, if I recall Eastwood made the statement that there were no blacks on Iwo Jima, yet a black veteran stepped up to claim that he had been the guy who found the pipe used for a flagpole. I never heard any follow-up to this.

    As for Lee wrestling Malcolm X away from Jewison, well, Jewison did a pretty credible with
    The Hurricane. (Of course, there were people who thought Jewison was a logical choice for Jesus Christ Superstar, because they thought he was Jewish, which he isn’t.) At the same time, I’m not about to argue with Lee that he has a better grasp on being black than I do. Similarly, I admit that I’m more comfortable that the gay Gus Van Sant made the Harvey Milk biopic that’s coming out than I would be if it was signed by, say, Ron Howard. Yet such non-gay filmmakers as Ken Russell (Women in Love) and Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) made two of the best and most influential gay-themed films of all time, so the question’s rarely that simple.

    Now, Lee is a bit deluded if he really thinks his audience is mostly black, since a sizable portion is made up of liberal-minded white folks.

    In any case, all of this — interesting as it is — doesn’t alter the fact that Lee’s film doesn’t feel like it was made by corporate decision making, and as such is, for me, noteworthy on that basis alone. That Lee is a prickly, often loud-mouthed person with an alarming lack of social skills on so many occasions doesn’t impact that. (Oddly, the fact that he evidenced a sense of humor about himself — something I never suspected he had — in a commercial he made for Verizon recently made me like him rather better.) I am, by the way, not a wholesale admirer of Lee’s work, but I admire the fact that he gets it made.

  4. Louis

    I seem to have gotten my Eastwood alter-ego WWII movies inverted?–i.e., should’ve referenced FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS (the American point of view), rather than LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (the Japanese point of view)–with respect to Lee’s critism of Eastwood. In so doing, as you point out, Eastwood’s LETTERS and MIRACLE at ST. ANNA are, umm, less than comparable. To have left it at that?–you’re being too kind.

    Needless to say, I was going for a comparison of FLAGS vs. MIRACLE at ST. ANNA. So much for argumentative effect, huh?

    Eastwood did, as I intended to illustrate, already show there is no audience for this subject based on the B.O. of FLAGS. From the looks of it, you agree.

    So, in a bizarro kind of way, you’ve seconded my opinion that I never made in the first place, but meant to. What!?

    (Oddly, the fact that he evidenced a sense of humor about himself—something I never suspected he had—in a commercial he made for Verizon recently made me like him rather better.)

    He was doing this approximately 20 years ago with his coke-bottle-glasses wearing “Mars Blackmon” character that ran for several years with he and Michael Jordan plugging Nike’s “Air Jordan” shoes. Recall, the Mars Blackmon character originally appeared in Lee’s SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT in 1986? True, it was an alter-ego character, and not Spike Lee playing Spike Lee, but it did show he could laugh at himself on some level. And, it’s not as if the TV-commerical Lee/Blackmon character was done in disguised appearance or voice.

    The Hurricane. (Of course, there were people who thought Jewison was a logical choice for Jesus Christ Superstar, because they thought he was Jewish, which he isn’t.)

    And, like I mentioned with GLORY, Denzil Washington figured prominantly in HURRICANE as well. Is there a pattern here?

    At the same time, I’m not about to argue with Lee that he has a better grasp on being black than I do.

    This is an interesting conclusion to consider. Because I’m infinately more interested in whether Lee–or whomever the given movie’s director is–has a better grasp on how to tell a compelling story. In the context of my personal response to a movie, I don’t care about the inputs (e.g., experiences) that went into his life. I care about how he translates and transmits those experiences into a worthwhile story on screen. Wouldn’t you agree this sentiment is true for the vast majority of moviegoers?

    In other words, just because someone knows more about being black or white, or whatever color you choose, doesn’t mean they can translate and transmit that personal experience into compelling storytelling.

    Suppose for a moment that there was a one-to-one ratio between personal experience & the inherent talent to be able to convey said experience through the film medium; if the experience is so crucial–both in terms of creating the film (the director) and interpreting the film (the viewer)–then how could any white person know, in Lee’s specific case, whether Lee’s doing a competent job of communicating the “black experience” or whether the white person is doing an accurate job of interpreting it? You’ve implied (in your defense, you didn’t come right and say it) he has a better grasp on the “black experience” than you. All I’m saying is, so what? That doesn’t diminish the personal meaningfulness of your interpretations when you watch one of his “black experience” films, does it?

    On what do you base your decision not to argue with Lee that he has a better grasp on being black than you do–his skin color or his body of work? You get my drift. It’s a slippery-slope (God, I hate that expression) Maybe he has a better grasp, maybe he doesn’t. Does it matter?–think Tyler Perry? I rest my case.

    Any consideration about who has a better grasp on a particular cultural experience, in this case, based on skin color, is a red herring in the context of appreciating the personal impact a movie has on you.

  5. Ken Hanke

    He was doing this approximately 20 years ago with his coke-bottle-glasses wearing “Mars Blackmon” character that ran for several years with he and Michael Jordan plugging Nike’s “Air Jordan” shoes.

    Yes, but there’s a significant difference here. This isn’t Lee playing a character. It isn’t even Lee onscreen. It’s Lee parodying a signature aspect of his filmmaking style. That’s what surprised me.

    Wouldn’t you agree this sentiment is true for the vast majority of moviegoers?

    Considering that I doubt the vast majority of moviegoers ever think about this sort of thing, you’re probably right. My point, however, is that I think it’s pretty near impossible to make the kind of impact you’re talking about without a pretty deep personal understanding of it. Some people can do it, some can’t. I freely admit I would have no clue how to really express the so-called black experience. It reminds me of a black writer friend of mine who found every bit of fiction I’d ever written fascinating because, to him, the material was through such a European cultural sensibility that it was often like a separate world to him — with flashes of emotional commonality. It kind of comes back to that old sage piece of advice — write what you know about.

    Maybe he has a better grasp, maybe he doesn’t. Does it matter?–think Tyler Perry? I rest my case.

    Sorry, I think it does matter. And Tyler Perry is the real red herring in such a discussion. He’s a panderer and he panders to a very specific aspect of the black life, because it’s all bathed in Christianity.

    Any consideration about who has a better grasp on a particular cultural experience, in this case, based on skin color, is a red herring in the context of appreciating the personal impact a movie has on you.

    Maybe. Maybe not. Is it just barely possible that you’re responding positively to Zwick’s Glory and Jewison’s The Hurricane in part because you’re more in tune with the white sensibility they bring to the material? Zwick in particular strikes me as the modern equivalent of Stanley Kramer — a well-meaning guy with a social conscience, but little real grasp of the material, except that it’s “important.”

    I do think that some degree of first-hand knowledge is a plus, though, yes, it obviously needs to be in the hands of someone with the talent to convey it. Personally, while a lot of Lee’s work leaves me cold, I’ve rarely doubted his talent (OK, that stupid uncorrected ‘scope footage in Crooklyn was just plain bad). As a personal filmmaker, I’d certainly place him head and shoulders above Zwick or Jewison, even though Jewison has given me more personal pleasure over the years in a Hollywood craftsman manner.

  6. Louis

    Maybe. Maybe not. Is it just barely possible that you’re responding positively to Zwick’s Glory and Jewison’s The Hurricane in part because you’re more in tune with the white sensibility they bring to the material?

    I thought GLORY was competently done. It’s not a movie I’ve gone back and watched in repeated viewings. It’s simply that it ushered a mainstream, dramatic, bankable black movie star into American cinema. No easy feat. It’s significant for that reason.

    I saw HURRICANE once. We’ve pretty much got the same take on Jewision–he understands the medium, but he doesn’t personalize his work with his own signature, as it were.

    As far as my take goes on THE HURRICANE; I dare say it had nothing to do with being white. My optisimic curiousity in it ended up being far disproportionate to my “positive response.” I’m a boxing fan, especially from its last golden heyday–the 60′s and 70′s. I have a propensity to have a soft spot for David vs. Goliath stories, in any medium, in which the minority (e.g., skin color, religious beliefs, poltical leanings) overcomes the status quo.

    Lastly, I had the (mis)fortune of being yelled at by Myron Bedlock in 1999–the same year the movie came out.

    I was visiting a friend in Manhattan. One morning I rode the converted freight elevator up to my friend’s apartment. This time I forgot to close the retractable elevator gate so that the elevator would return to the first floor for the next user. In short, the elevator was stuck.

    As I’m making my way into the apartment I hear this guy yelling up into the elevator shaft, “Close the damn gate!” As I look down three floors with indignation at him, I quickly glance at my friend and ask, “Who the hell does that guy think he is?” My friend politely informs me that “that guy” is Myron Bedlock. I say, “As in Reuben Carter’s lawyer?” (Yes, I knew immediatley he was/is). Not that the answer to my question made one bit of difference, but, yes, I politely closed the elevator gate.

    And, as you might imagine, I looked forward to David Paymer’s rendering of the Myron Bedlock character in the movie. Not sure my skin color or cultural experience had much to do with my anticipation or perception of the film. More likely its path crossed with mine for a brief momement in time.

  7. Ken Hanke

    I thought GLORY was competently done. It’s not a movie I’ve gone back and watched in repeated viewings. It’s simply that it ushered a mainstream, dramatic, bankable black movie star into American cinema. No easy feat. It’s significant for that reason.

    But even that could partly be due to that star being presented in a film that’s suffused through a “white sensibility,” which, by the way, I’m not saying is either automatically a bad thing, or that it is without validity. There is also something to be said for the freshness of what someone sees from the outside. In a very different capacity, take Tony Richardson’s The Loved One and Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion — both are films that look at America and both are from a British sensibility, which may well be why they work as well as they do as social critique.

    We’ve pretty much got the same take on Jewision–he understands the medium, but he doesn’t personalize his work with his own signature, as it were.

    At the same time, there are occasional truly remarkable moments in his films. Having recently looked at Jesus Christ Superstar again, I was struck by a couple moments that verge on brilliance in the use of filmmaking technique — the freeze frame of Jesus on the lyric, “JC, would you die for me?” and the montage of religious paintings in the sequence where Christ accepts his destiny. (The less said about the “dancing” star-cross filters in the big ending number, the better.)

    As far as my take goes on THE HURRICANE; I dare say it had nothing to do with being white. My optisimic curiousity in it ended up being far disproportionate to my “positive response.” I’m a boxing fan, especially from its last golden heyday–the 60’s and 70’s

    In all honesty, it’s a film I probably only saw because of the Dylan song. I have no interest in boxing — except for the fact that it’s probably the only sport that translates to the screen as inherently cinematic.

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