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Miracle at St. Anna

Submitted by on March 31, 2009 – 6:47 PM3 Comments
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I eagerly looked forward to Spike Lee’s new film, Miracle at St. Anna, when it came out on DVD.  The film is part mystery, part war story, part social commentary, and part uplifting drama.

It begins in 1983, when elderly postal clerk, Hector Negron (played by Laz Alons; Stomp the Yard, Captivity, Jar Head) , shoots a patron at his stamp window, with a German Luger. When the police find a priceless Italian marble head in a shopping bag in Negron’s apartment, junior reporter Tim Boyle, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (TV’s Numb3rs and 3rd Rock from the Sun and filmsShadowboxer and The Lookout) seeks out Negron in jail to find out how a murder and a priceless artifact are connected to this man.

A complex story unfolds that occurred in Italy in 1944 during WW II when four black American soldiers become trapped behind enemy lines in a small Tuscan village. They are trapped there because of a blatant act of racism by their white commanding officer and by the uncompromising generosity of spirit of Private Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller–TV’s Eleventh Hour, West Wing, Law and Order; and Transformers,  Shall We Dance films) who rescues a small Italian boy. Negron, Train, Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke–Biker Boyz, Glory Road, Notorious), and Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy- Barbershop 2, 2 Fast 2 Furious) soon find life in the village of Colognora., dangerous, enticing, and very liberating.

The villagers are part of a partisan movement that is trying to rid themselves of German occupation. At the time the Americans enter the village seeking help for the injured boy, the Germans have left. Renata, an Italian beauty, played by Italian actress Valintina Cervi, helps the GI s find help for the boy who has bonded with Train and calls him the Chocolate Giant. Renata, who is married, soon finds herself coming between two of the soldiers.

When Negron gets the radio working and contacts his commanding officer, the soldiers are told to capture a German. Ironically, Peppi “The Great Butterfly” Grotta, a famous Italian partisan, (played by Pierfrancesco Favion who appears in the new Da Vinci movie, Angels and Demons) brings one into the village. This sets off a local legend and reveals a traitor in their midst.

Normally, a film like this would just be straight drama with good character development and action. Spike Lee’s direction and James McBride’s adaptation of his novel for the screen certainly achieve that. But there is much more here because first the script is multilayered giving Lee and the actors much to  develop. But Lee uses the camera to underline many of the themes embedded in the script.

First of all, there is the obvious examination of racism among American troops that one would expect from a Spike Lee film. His examples of it are quite startling in contrast to the total acceptance of the black GI s by the villagers and the little boy’s adoration of Train. There is even humanity shown by a German officer that might have flown in the face of reality, but works with this film.

Another theme that keeps recurring is faith and redemption. At one point, Spike Lee cuts back and forth from black American soldiers in camp praying before battle, to the villagers praying in a Catholic church, to Germans praying. It’s an effective devise to show the universality of belief. Also, Cummings and Train discuss their personal beliefs. Cummings is a lay preacher back in the States but he doesn’t believe what he preaches, while Train believes everything, almost slipping into magical thinking, believing the marble artifact he carries around with him will make him invisible to enemy fire. There is even a scene of a village party inside the church with drinking and dancing, but no smoking.

As for the miracle—well, let me just say that it is a series of incidents that center on a real occurrence that happened in 1944 at Sant’Anna di Stazzema when a whole village was massacred by the Waffen-SS in retaliation to Italian partisan activity. This one incident is what everything hangs on, even though the action mainly takes place in another village.

I was entranced by this movie, though I rarely watch war films. There are the prerequisite bloody battle scenes you would expect, but they aren’t over done. They are there to further the plot. The acting is outstanding and the cinematography is well done. I’m really surprised this film didn’t impress more critics. It is one of the rare occasions when a literary novel translates well to the screen. Spike Lee is to be commended for bringing this story to American audiences.

Beer Pairing: Grado Plato Strada San Felice,
a full-bodied, highly nuanced chestnut ale with
a hint of sweetness

Written by Janie Franz