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.