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Miracle at St. Anna (7/10)

by Tony Medley

Runtime 160 minutes.

This starts out poorly with a crude caricature of a tough-talking policeman, Detective Tony Ricci (John Turturro), and clumsy dialogue between Ricci and reporter Tim Boyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who are investigating a murder in a post office in the early 1980s. When a movie starts out this badly it bodes ill when one knows one is trapped for 2 hours forty minutes. Then we are swept away to a flashback of a squad of Buffalo Soldiers (15,000 black soldiers in the U.S. Army in World War II) walking across a field in 1944 Italy. If the dialogue between Ricci and Boyle was silly, what goes on between the soldiers as they slowly advance to a river is worse.  Screenwriter McBride apparently was channeling dialogue from “A Walk in the Sun” (1945), but McBride is no Robert Rossen (whose credits also include 1949’s “All the King’s Men” and 1961’s “The Hustler,” among others).

Fortunately, after the first half hour director Spike Lee picks this up into an interesting, well-acted war/mystery/commentary on humanity.

Despite Turturro and Gordon-Levitt (who generally gives a good performance, but he’s undone by the material), Lee has rounded up a very good cast of relative unknowns. Derek Luke plays Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stams. Michael Ealy is womanizing Sergeant Bishop Cummings. Laz Alonso is Nector Negron. Rounding out the four remaining squad members is Omar Benson Miller, playing innocent, illiterate, gentle giant Sam Train, who finds an abandoned, traumatized little boy, Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), and believes he is a talisman of good luck. All give good performances. Eventually they get involved with Italian beauty Renata (Valentina Cervi). Naturally a beautiful woman causes problems in the squad.

Peppi Grotta (Pierfrancsco Favino) is The Great Butterfly, representing several great Partisan leaders active during the War. Lee develops a sub plot that shows that all was not smooth with the Partisans, either.

Particularly effective is the way Lee presents the massacre at the church of St. Anna by the Nazi SS, which was shot in the exact spot where 560 Italian civilians were massacred on August 12, 1944. Says Lee, “We all felt the spirits of those people.”

Once we get to know these men, the movie becomes a lot more interesting, as Lee examines not only men at war, but the treatment of black men in the South and in the WWII Army. Suddenly McBride finds his stride and the dialogue is much more realistic. Hard as it may be to believe, after the first half hour Lee keeps the pace of the film moving so that time passed without me looking at my watch once.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many admirable white American soldiers in the film. There are two bigots who are caricatures of racists, and there certainly were many of those back then. It would have been more palatable, however, had Lee found it in him to include some white American soldiers who weren’t racist. Surely some of those existed, or did all the non-racist white people die in the Civil War, giving their lives to rid the country of slavery?

Maybe the best part of the movie is Terrence Blanchard’s score. The music is so much a part of this film that it almost overwhelms everything else. Using a 90-piece orchestra, Blanchard also used instruments from the era, like a mandolin, accordion and slide guitar.

Too long and too much talk, but it’s entertaining if you can get by the first half hour.

September 23, 2008