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.