Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Miracle at St. Anna" - the latest Spike Lee joint

The latest “Spike Lee joint” is probably the director’s biggest and most ambitious, and complicated film. That is, “Miracle at St. Anna” (“Miracolo a Sant’Anna”), based on the novel by James McBride, from Touchstone pictures (Walt Disney Films hasn’t used that brand much lately), running a full 160 minutes, with a stunning orchestral score by Terence Blanchard. The closing credits also play “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands.” Wikipedia notes that Lee raised his own money ($45 million, apparently much of it in Europe) before Disney picked up the film (for US markets), and in many ways, it is more like a large (even “epic”) independent film (sort of in the genre of “There Will Be Blood”) even though it is distributed under a major studio brand. Much of the flashback dialogue is in Italian or German, with subtitles.

On one level, the novel and book sound like a pretext for recreating the horrific 1944 massacre at Sant’Anna di Stazzema in Tuscany, Italy by the Nazis, in retaliation for local “partisanship”. The press has stated the logline as something like this: four African American in the area are challenged to survive when one of them rescues a small boy who treasures a sculptured head of the Ponte Santa Tranita. The object serves as a macguffin, providing a reason to tell the complicated, layered story in a series of flashbacks, not always in time sequence, from the viewpoint of various characters, gradually developing for the moviegoer (or reader) a political subtext, of understanding the controversy of African Americans fighting in World War II while facing segregation at home.

All of these ideas are developed. At the beginning, the one remaining survivor, in 1984, shoots a man with a German pistol from his job at the post office after the man has apparently indicated an interest in the object. It’s quite a mystery for a belated New York Daily News reporter Boyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to piece together, but his jailhouse interview with the purple heart veteran compiles all the elements of the story. It’s as if one wanted to make a docudrama by putting all the relevant scenes in an order that makes the argument.

At the deepest point in the past, an at the films running midpoint, the soldiers, before going overseas, visit a segregated restaurant in Louisiana, provoking a confrontation (with “War Bonds” posters in the background) that miniaturizes the rest of the film.

The numerous battle scenes, as well as the massacre, contain some of the most graphic war violence ever filmed (contributing to the R rating), even outdoing “Saving Private Ryan”. At one point, the Germans are talking about the Geneva Convention, and call the civilian resistance “terrorists” who will not be covered. Much of the lapsed time in the film takes place in Tuscany, and it is filmed on location, in full anamorphic widescreen, and the results technically are stunning.

There is a long sequence where a solider (Derek Luke) bonds to the boy (Matteo Sciabordi), who calls him a “chocolate giant”

At almost the very beginning, when the protagonist is sitting in his New York apartment watching John Wayne and “The Longest Day” we get a frames picture on a lynching.

The film shows African American and white soldiers sometimes fighting together, with African American platoon leaders. This is at least a veiled reference to the fact that Truman would integrate the military in 1948 (as in the 1996 HBO film "Truman" with Gary Sinese), facing arguments a bit akin to the military policy on gays today.

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