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Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
Imperfect, but watchable
A funny thing happens when you're counted among the preeminent talents in any contemporary art form: Everything you do must approach sublime... or else. Something less funny happens when your art is as socially outspoken as Spike Lee's body of work: Folk wait with baited breath to name every shred of detail that marks your work as somehow less than sublime. And in so doing, they ever miss the forest for the trees.
Lee's latest "joint," MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA, based on James McBride's novel of the same name, no doubt will suffer from such deconstruction, some of which will be justified. At 160+ minutes, the fictional recollection of four black American WWII soldiers who get trapped in an Italian village during a German insurgence, can wax tedious. And Lee's defaulting to certain conventions of the war genre and his own signature style occasionally comes off forced, sentimental, even ridiculous. After, say, the 10th close-up of a slain human -- eyes still open in horror -- we may not need to see an 11th, 12th, 13th. And any casual student of cinema might spot Lee's attempted tear-jerker ending a la CINEMA PARADISO coming a mile away.
Then there are the technical shortcomings of personnel who should know better: A score by Terence Blanchard is uncharacteristically overwrought; cinematography by Matthew Libatique is alternately breathtaking and obtuse; and a self-adapted screenplay by McBride suffers from a conspicuously uncommitted point of view. But, indeed, what may most undercut any visceral charm of MASA is at once admirably realistic: The film's characters aren't particularly moving in their conflicted natures and utter lack of romance. Only a visionary Italian boy, played beautifully by newcomer Matteo Sciabordi, and the black American soldier who befriends him, played by the hulking Omar Benson Miller, elicit any real sympathy.
All told, the numerous missteps do not seriously undercut a captive tale of humans -- white, black and brown -- who find themselves thrown into a hell not of their making and forced to juggle universal sensibilities with the duties of their divergent identities. In this regard, Lee's latest shows marked progress: Gone are the one-sided depictions of whites. Fascist-era native Italians are shown here in all their warring complexity; American actor D.B. Sweeney plays a key, if understated, role as a white U.S. colonel opposed to the exploitation of the all-black 92nd Army Division; even Nazi stormtroopers here are given back a modicum of humanity. Neither is the African American experience sanctified: Actor Michael Ealy's preacher-turned-soldier character is equal parts charming and vile; and one pre-Civil Rights-era American flashback begs the question of what line separates hero and villain. If one is willing to forgive the imperfect details from a filmmaker who has proved capable of better, the aggregate statement is hardly ineffectual.
Lee's real victory here shouldn't be missed. MASA does not rise to the level of the best of the genre. Neither is it worthy to be called the definitive tribute to an unsung 92nd Army Division or the souls lost at Sant'Anna di Stazzema. But it is always watchable, always interesting -- and as an engaging enough mystery film and thoughtful ensemble piece with an important, forgotten corner of human failure as backdrop, it succeeds.