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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Miracle at St. Anna (review)

Anti-Miracle

I have to confess that I’m not entirely sure what the “miracle” at St. Anna is meant to be. I get that there is a small confluence of events that comes together during the larger, very horrific awfulness that transpires in the tiny Italian mountain village of St. Anna, during the latter days of World War II, the combination of a deliberate act and pure dumb luck that one might interpret as somehow “miraculous.” But what does it have to do with, you know, anything? In a dramatic, storytelling sense, I mean. Sure, maybe it’s nice that this “miracle” happened, but kittens are cute, too, and that doesn’t automatically make a story about kittens being cute worth telling.
If there’s a miracle to Miracle at St. Anna, it’s a rude one: it may well be that here we have a film obviously crafted with deep earnestness and profound love and serious talent… and it fails entirely, on every level, in every way that a movie can fail. It’s as if supernatural intervention were required so that no smidgen of that indefinable movie magic could be generated. We come to the end — after a long slog of 160 minutes — and we find ourselves saying, “Yes, and…?” and no answer is forthcoming. Could be this is the longest and most expensive shaggy-dog story ever told.

And it pains me to say that. There are moments of undeniable power here, in what is, for the most part, a tale of black American GIs in Italy in 1944, and the abuse they suffer even at the hands of their white commanders, and the warm acceptance they feel from their accidental hosts, the people of a small village (not St. Anna: another village entirely), and the mission they attempt to carry out under impossible conditions. Derek Luke (Definitely, Maybe, Lions for Lambs), he breaks your heart as the staff sergeant nominally in charge of this plucky little band of survivors of a terrible battle; he’s one of the finest young actors working today… or not working enough today, as the case may be, with so few truly meaty roles for young black men. Michael Ealy (Barbershop 2: Back in Business, 2 Fast 2 Furious), as the asshole of the band of soldiers, gives an astonishingly uncompromising performance as a man it’s really hard to like, yet Ealy demands that you don’t dismiss the character anyway.

But Miracle is like a novel, without the novel… which could be a result of the fact that novelist James McBride, adapting his own book, had never written a screenplay before this one. It’s a “lyrical” movie without the lyricism — I wouldn’t have thought that Spike Lee (Inside Man, 25th Hour) could be flummoxed as a director, but that’s what seems to have happened here. Because McBride and Lee take us off on all sorts of irrelevant tangents, dropping us into the middle of other stories and other characters and sometimes never coming back to them, and sometimes suddenly focusing on them with a fervor that defies our expectations… and not in a good way. The lack of perspective, of a cohesive, direct point of view is frustrating; the getting us caught up in one moment and then abandoning it entirely is unforgivable. Maybe the novel was a beautifully written piece of prose about the tenuous and seemingly disconnect connections between people, about how human life flows into human life, about how people intersect in unexpected and amazing ways. If Miracle hoped to capture that, it did not succeed, not in any way.

Instead, we end up with no sense of what the story is or where it may be going, and it’s not interesting enough along the way to make us care about just being in the moment. Miracle lacks all impetus, all energy, all soul. It plays like a collection of Oscar clips, diffuse moments of beauty and strength unconnected to the sea of too many characters and too pointless scenes they’re lost in. We don’t know where to focus, and we don’t know where to look. This is like three or four movies jammed inexpertly together. I never understood why I was being told any of this, and I never understood the point.

One thing Miracle at St. Anna excels at? It’s an excellent illustration of the vital difference between story — what happens — and plot — how a movie reveals to us what happens. There’s a great movie to be made from this story, probably, but this isn’t it.


MPAA: rated R for strong war violence, language and some sexual content/nudity

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
  • hdj

    I want to see this,though It’s not the fact that its long movie or the story feels unfinished that keeping me away. its the fact I’m worried it might have some sort of offensive Interracial romance in the movie. I know Spike Lees had Interracial sex scenes, but It seems Lee could use this big ticket to really capitalize on the Interracial issue with a flag and victory ect.

  • Mathias

    Yes, there is an interracial love scene but i don’t know why anyone would find it offensive.

    But i agree entirely with MJ, this whole film is weighted down by the unfocused and wandering script. The screenplay is in a great need of a re-write and needed a more experienced writer to over-haul it.

    Man, Spike Lee’s got some serious balls to criticize Clint Eastwood right after he delivered two great WW 2 films, especially when he had such a mess of a war film in the can.

  • Chris

    I just got back from seeing it, and I was unsettled. And not in a good way. It lacked a core, lacked a summing up. Among other things, the “interracial love scene,” which seemed to lack a purpose other than making you think one of the characters is an enormous douche (trying to avoid spoilers). All in all, meh. I usually can at least appreciate Spike Lee for his skill, but he whiffed on this one

  • Maurice

    An “interracial” love scene will offend people who believe that somehow having a different skin color or other physical adaptation indicates that a person is a member of a genetically different “race” or species.

    This is an error in thinking as we are all members of the same species bearing various adaptations based on the geographical location of our ancestors.

    However, people being the insipid, knuckle-treading animals we are, I expect the majority of us will not reach this understanding before I cease to draw breath.

    And no, I am not bitter, but rather I am fierce with certainty and filled with unremitting scorn for ignorant attitudes that are more often than not simply hallmarks of those too lazy to examine their own thinking.

  • Accounting Ninja

    Me, too, Maurice. I was actually pretty surprised to read that somwone would be “offended” by an interracial love scene. I mean, who cares??

    Just when I think, “It’s 2008, people are a lot more enlightened today!” yadda yadda.

  • hdj

    People are more enlightened. Hence why Obama’s doing to well in the polls. But in movies , directors try to throw curve balls at people, messages that just don’t sit right with alot of people. Like the black white thing in Italy is different then it is in America. In “True Romance” Dennis Hopper does this speech on how all Italians where blond hair and blue eyes till the Moors came in. Well that theory just pisses off a whole lot of Italians, saying that were part black. Like say I made a movie called “The last Plantation owner” and Its about a slave owner with a heart of gold, and all the slaves Husbands where totally jerks, so all the black woman came to me because I had a bigger heart. By the end of the movie I knocked them all up, Then the twist in the end is me being friends with Thomas Jefferson. Too say no African American people would be offended by my movie would be crazy, because it would offend them.

  • MBI

    “it fails entirely, on every level, in every way that a movie can fail. ”

    My God, yes. Yes, yes, yes. This is a disaster of a movie in every conceivable way, and it cheers me to see it put so succinctly.

  • ODrew

    This movie succeeded far more than it failed. The German radio D.J. propaganda scene involving the river crossing of the Black soldiers was informative. As was the horrible-but-true St. Anna Massacre depiction. (Over 500 civilians were slain.)

    Also it didn’t focus on one point of view, but included the Italian Village, their concerns and interactions with the Americans as well as the Nazi’s was interesting as well.

    As in Clint Eastwood’s epics, this showed people adapting, turning to their faith, and struggling within their own diverse families that made this film succeed much more than just a shoot-em-up by the numbers war film.

    The fact is that many Black Americans felt more welcomed in Europe than in their own country. (Ice-Cream Parlor scene). That WAS the A/M military experience. Nazi’s could sit in the front of the bus, Black Americans could not.

    While not perfect, it is a movie that the history books and Hollywood has overlooked but should be told and discussed.
    to say “skip-it” is wrong. There’s much to learn about the history of the entire American contribution during WWII.

  • MaryAnn

    This isn’t a documentary (though it would fail if it were, too). Regardless of what the facts and the truth are, this movie fails on a storytelling basis.

    How can my “skip it” be “wrong”? That implies that there’s an indisputable “right” opinion on the film. Are you suggesting, ODrew, that your opinion is correct on a factual basis? If so, how can that be?

  • Rhythm

    Just got back from this film…I thoroughly enjoyed it. While its not the best of Spike Lee, to say that it “fails in every way” just seems a bit overstated, IMO. I thought the homages to Italian Neo-realism were pretty spot-on, as were the little touches that reminded one of the usual conventions of the American WWII dramatic film. Another particularly daring and bold move for a modern American filmmaker was the humanization of the Nazi soldiers – in this film they aren’t all the Nordic automatons that is usually found in a WWII film set in Europe.

    As for the Miracle(s)…there are literally 4 or 5 “miracles” that I can think of off-hand, but I won’t list them, for fear of spoiling the film for others. They were actually pretty obvious to me *shrugs*.

    I think Spike Lee’s later works have become amazingly adept at misdirection; or perhaps, critics have become less inclined to just view his films as FILMS, and not the endcap of whatever round of “controversy” Mr. Lee seems to be embroiled in. As a result, I feel that a lot of his recent films have been completely mis-evaluated.

  • MaryAnn

    Oh, is there some kind of controversy that Lee is embroiled in that you see reflected in my opinion of the film?

    If you’re going to make an accusation that I’m not seeing the film as a film, at least offer something to back that up.

  • MBI

    Yeah, seriously, this is Lee’s most uncontroversial and straightforward film ever. That may be why it’s his most boring, come to think of it.

  • Rhythm

    That last sentence of my response really isn’t the most important, but I’ll respond:

    The Spike/Clint conflict over the lack of black people in WWII cinema is pretty well-known. Now, I will admit that nowhere in your review did you mention that; but based upon your review, there seems to be SOMETHING leading to a glaring amount of blind spots in your review.

    Nowhere in your review did you mention:

    The overt references to Italian Neo-realism;
    The nods to the classic tropes of the WWII film;
    The underlying theme of the true victims of war being women, children and the elderly – basically the unarmed bystanders in any armed conflict;
    The generally terrified and dissatisfied nature of all soldiers in any conflict;

    All of these themes were pretty obvious to me, and were as important to the film as the racial component. The director used quite a few cinematic techniques to convey these themes…and many of them weren’t subtle AT ALL (the scene with the soldier and the Italian woman running in the rain?) Thus far, I’ve read ONE review that even MENTIONS any of these things, let alone discuss their degree of effectiveness. If obvious cinematic/narrative techniques are not even MENTIONED in the overwhelming majority of reviews of a film, but are able to be perceived by a simple film lover such as myself, I have to question why? The movie could very well be a trainwreck (I do agree that its probably enough ideas here to make 3 very very very good movies, but I think it worked as is); but at least give an accurate description of what was INVOLVED in the trainwreck!

  • Rhythm

    Also to say a film “fails in every way, on every level” when you don’t even mention a good chunk of the “levels” involved in the film, is somewhat questionable

  • MaryAnn

    If obvious cinematic/narrative techniques are not even MENTIONED in the overwhelming majority of reviews of a film, but are able to be perceived by a simple film lover such as myself, I have to question why?

    Because themes and nods to other films and so on are not story, and this is a story. “Narrative techniques” do not make up for a poorly told story.

    And you may take my “It’s a ‘lyrical’ movie without the lyricism” as meant to cover all those cinematic/narrative techniques you thought were so important here. I could also have said the film is “all style and no substance.”

    You see, I didn’t miss the things you perceived: I just didn’t find them worth mentioning, on a detailed case-by-case basis, because those are (or should be) the icing on the cake, not the whole dessert.

  • Rhythm

    The story this film tells can be summarized in one or two sentences, as can most films. Fortunately, film isn’t simply story. Many, many good movies tell meandering, almost pointless stories, but are great because of the journey they take to get there (hell, the entire genre of Italian Neo-Realism could be described in such a manner, as could the career of Terrance Malick). Now is this movie as good as The Bicycle Thief, or the Thin Red Line? To me, no. But there’s a lot of compelling stuff in this movie, IMO. And to savage the film as a complete and utter failure and then to describe it as a “lyrical film without the lyricism”, and then NOT describe the attempted lyricism or why you thought it failed, just seems…incomplete?

  • MaryAnn

    A review can never cover all aspects of a film. I’m never going to be able to go into detail about everything.

    And I do think that film is primarily about story. I’ve never pretended otherwise. You may disgaree, of course. But then you’re going to have to find another film critic, one who approaches film more like you do.

  • raptor

    SPOILERS!

    I disagree with calling it an interracial ‘love scene’ because they were just f*ing, her like a whore and him like a piece of sh*t who can’t think beyond the tip of his d*ck. What WOULD have made for a love-scene would have been a coupling between STAMPS and the woman. Stamps was showing how he understood the divide between them but he expressed his feelings to her all the while maintaining a respect. A love scene between their characters would have felt like a reward-payoff. The other guy, however, did not see her as a human being to be admired and respected but rather as a prize, a white lion to hunt down and kill for his own glory and satisfaction. This woman had sex with the other guy I gather, because she had grown increasingly curious and perhaps because she didn’t feel she could be with Stamps, she went the path of the slut, if this were modern day, there would have been the obligatory scene of her pushing a baby stroller later on without the father. I hated her for it and I’m glad she died, I’m glad the other guy died, I’m sad Stamps died. If this was Lee’s goal, mission accomplished. He didn’t do anything to help the black cause with his choice of this scene however.

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