' Cinema Romantico: Miracle at St. Anna

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Miracle at St. Anna

A Spike Lee movie (excuse me, I meant a Spike Lee "joint") can often be a rather frustrating experience. The man is a talented filmmaker, and that's all there is to it. Regardless of his topical rants and politics and antics courtside at Knicks games he is capable of serving up rich, breathtaking cinematic passages. Passages is the key word, however, because he rarely seems able to maintain that rich, breathtaking feel for the duration of an entire film. He tends to indulge in superfluous flights of fancy (stock footage of Willie Mays' famous World Series catch inexplicably popping up in "Summer of Sam"), extraneous characters (Milla Jovovich in "He Got Game") and inane subplots (the daughter in "Crooklyn" suddenly getting shipped down south to live with relatives) that weigh everything down.

Lee's WWII opus "Miracle at St. Anna", based on the novel by James McBride (who penned the script), opens with a - here are those words again! - rich, breathtaking passage of the all-black 92nd Army division attempting to cross an Italian river in 1944 to confront the German army. A Nazi femme fatale back at base camp smokes a cigarette and coos over a loudspeaker, pleading for the black American soldiers to abandon their country since it doesn't truly care for them and switch to the German side. The camera tracks with the division as they advance, watching for the enemy, listening to her, and we are introduced to our four leads, Stamps (Derek Luke, a great performance in which he both commands and underplays and re-affirms why he is deserving of more leading roles), Hector (Laz Alonso), Bishop (Michael Ealy), and Train (Omar Benson Miller). I loved this sequence. Stylish and unusual. One problem, though, it doesn't actually open the movie.

No, the movie opens in 1983, where an older Hector is watching John Wayne on TV in "The Longest Day" causing him to say out loud to no one, "We fought that war, too." (But remember, friends, Spike Lee didn't have any ulterior motives for making this film. Got it? No ulterior motives.) We then see Hector working at a post office where an Italian man ask to buy stamps. Hector snags a German luger and kills him. A young reporter (Joseph Gordon Leavitt, who, along with John Turturro's detective, sound more like characters in a 40's B-movie than anyone out of 1983) goes along with two detectives to Hector's home where the head of a priceless Italian statue is found. And then we flash back to 1944.

The four primary characters find themselves trapped behind enemy lines, cut off from their division. They are surrounded by Nazis on all sides. This alone would make for a tidy war movie, but then, as we established, being tidy isn't usually Lee's interest.

Train comes into contact with a young Italian boy, Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), and befriends him. The group takes shelter at a home in a Tuscan village where the family's young daughter Renata (Valentina Cervi) finds herself drawn to both Stamps and Bishop. Once making contact with their commanding officer the Americans are orderd to find a Nazi and take him prisoner. A son of the family is a notorious Italian partisan, sought by the Germans.

As the film progressed I couldn't help but feel the theme emerging was that of blind faith. There is a lot going on in relation to this issue. Train is convinced young Angelo has been touched by God and, on top of that, Train hauls the head of the aforementioned broken Italian statue with him everywhere, convinced it possesses power and makes him invisible. Electricity that has been out for years at the small Italian home mysteriously returns. Black soldiers take orders from a white officer who is clearly less experienced than them. Most horrifically, we witness the real-life tragedy at St. Anna from where the film gains its title, victims praying for salvation to the end.

There is one specific image that seems to sum this theme up in grand detail. One character, his time having run out, as he literally clutches blindly to faith. The film could have ended right then with a wallop. But I knew it wouldn't since I knew we had to go back to 1983 and sort out that whole god-forsaken mess. I mean, what is it with these historical movies that have to start in present day? It's become as common to cinema as jump cuts and a shaky camera.

Oh, there are other subplots that serve no consequence, like the whole romantic triangle which is terribly clunky and exists solely to generate tension between two characters who already had tension, anyway, and a sequence - which wasn't in the book, as stated in interviews by Lee - in which our four leads are refused service in an American cafe. Yes, all on its own this sequence works quite well but not so much within the framework of the movie. It feels ham-fisted, just a few more of those "non-existent" ulterior motives.

But much like a tragic film that begins with the tragedy so it hovers over all that is to come, the bookending passages of "Miracle at St. Anna" cause it to have sort of the same effect. Except, of course, the tragedy doesn't stem from the film's subject matter. The tragedy is the film. Spike can employ heavy-handed symbolism sometimes, but I've never seen him dredge up such heavy-handed schmaltz. The opening and closing bring to mind another WWII film that uses the device. Remeber it? Directed by another guy whose first name starts with the letter S (and his last name, too)? About a particular private who's gone missing? Another movie with portions that were exquisite and portions that were, well, heavy-handed schmaltz? Lee has said he wanted to make this movie to show other people contributing to the second World War, to subvert the insipid cliches. It's strange then that his movie falls victim to one of those insipid cliches.

1 comment:

Wretched Genius said...

After Inside Man and the phenomenal When the Levees Broke, I was starting to feel like Spike was finally starting to act like a filmmaker first, and social commentator second. Then I saw the trailer for this film, and all that hope disappeared.