New York City, 1983: an elderly African-American bank clerk shoots an elderly white customer dead in an unprovoked attack. The police investigation reveals the assailant was a decorated WW2 hero, and is in possession of a priceless missing artefact – the head of a statue from a bridge in St. Anna, Italy. Flashing back to 1944 Italy, the film recounts the tale of four African-American soldiers abandoned for a time behind enemy lines, and the mysterious power of the statue’s head.
After the exciting opening, things take a nosedive almost as soon as we flash back. Director Spike Lee demonstrates a lack of competency directing the what admittedly must be difficult battle scenes that’s surprising given his undoubted skill behind the camera. The scene when Train first encounters the young boy Angelo is baffling and the film quickly starts to feel as lost and meandering as the stranded men.
The tone shifts considerably with the introduction of an Italian family, the patriarch of which is an avowed fascist. Taking the wounded Angelo to their house for help, the four decide to stay there awhile to figure out exactly where they are and what to do next. It’s at about this point it becomes clear the film has found its feet and it becomes an engrossing watch.
An intricate series of relationships are forged, threatened, and broken between at least nine principal cast members, and it’s a testament to writer James McBride (adapting his own novel for his first and to date only screenplay) that each one engages. Especially touching is that between the delusional Angelo and the child-like Train (whom Angelo believes to be a chocolate giant), and that evolving relationship becomes central to the film.
Being a Spike Lee film it of course deals with race, and the experience of black America. McBride crafts one or two fine speeches/discussions between characters which deal with the issue directly without ever feeling inserted or forced. He also offers us a flashback to before the men were even sent to war detailing the racial discrimination they suffered. Moments like these are not pertinent to the main thrust of the plot, but they do provide nuance and serve to break up the slow-moving action. He also handles the “miracles” well, and leaves it wide open to debate as to whether they’re merely a string of happy coincidences.
The leisurely mid-section is the film’s best. The characters are beautifully drawn and it’salmost as if the war has been forgotten. When Italian Partisans show up the key to the mysterious opening murder is slowly revealed, but to say more would be to spoil it.
In all but the battle scenes Lee’s spot-on. Curiously it’s the more overtly military moments that also trip up composer and regular Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard, who is a genius in his field. Whenever there’s a Nazi onscreen, or anything vaguely jingoistic, he almost falls into parody. The performances are fine but nothing to write home about.
Unfortunately while it’s perfectly watchable – and never feels anything like its 160 minutes – it never really ignites. It’s a nice little story with one or two powerful moments, but that’s all.
Miracle at St. Anna is outon DVD 27th June 2011.
Director: Spike Lee
Stars: Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso
Runtime: 160 min
Country: USA, Italy