Miracle at St. Anna



Toronto International Film Festival (Disney)

TORONTO -- Spike Lee has so much on his plate in "Miracle at St. Anna" that it's little wonder everything goes flying. He wants to throw a spotlight in the highly underreported exploits of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division, known as the Buffalo Soldiers, in the Italian campaign in World War II. He wants to show the prejudices they suffered at home and on the frontline, the disputes among themselves, their uneasy but ultimately warm reception by the Italians contrasted with the hostilities with the Nazis. There's a romantic triangle with a local woman, a shell-shocked Italian boy, betrayals within the Partisans, a German army massacre and some heavy-handed magic realism. You can just feel audience involvement ebb slowly away with each passing scene of this overlong movie.

Disney won't find "Miracle" an easy film to market. Spike Lee's own name may be the best marketing tool, but the film lacks the discipline the director has shown in his recent efforts. It hits every thematic point too heavily and doesn't know when to move on. Boxoffice prospects are not promising.

An unconvincing episode in 1980s New York bookends the film in which an aging African-American postal clerk kills an aging Italian immigrant whom he obviously recognizes from the war. The first sequences in Italy portray the Buffalo Soldiers as poorly trained and vague about their mission, a bit surprising given their historic reputation for skill and bravery. The incompetence of their white commanders is ultimately blamed for a botched operation that lands four soldiers behind enemy lines, surrounded by the enemy in a picturesque village.

Private Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), a large man with limited intellect but a strong faith in God, befriends a traumatized 9-year-old boy (Matteo Sciabordi), the first white person he has ever actually touched. The idealistic Sgt. Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke) and the cynical Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy) develop a rivalry over the town's beauty (Valentina Cervi), conveniently the only person who speaks English. Corporal Victor Negron (Laz Alonso) struggles along with Stamps to contact headquarters and then to follow orders to kidnap a German soldier.

In adapting his own novel, James McBride lets confusion seep into his story as the rifts among the Partisans and villagers are never entirely clear and even the orders from American and German headquarters seem capricious. That we're even privy to what the German commanders are up to, given that this is a flashback of an American soldier's memory, is odd.

Odd too, for a film that wants to correct impression anyone had as to the abilities of black U.S. soldier in combat, are the ethnic cliches about Italians and Germans, to say nothing of rednecks. Portraying "Hun" soldiers as those who would bayonet babies was old in World War I.

Ultimately, the film is an unsavory blend of the sentimental and melodramatic. The subplot of the psychologically injured Italian boy and his "chocolate giant" is never persuasive. In fact, the whole episode is downright embarrassing. The Italian woman, her Fascist dad and indeed all the villagers are like bad memories summoned from vintage World War II movies. And having the woman parade topless before an American soldier is pure male fantasy.

None of the characters comes to any kind of life in the writing. Each has but a single dimension with little else to distinguish one from another. The story meanders, almost absurdly so, once the quartet get stranded in the medieval village. Certainly if Lee wanted to cut the film a bit before its release, he has ample places to begin.

Perhaps feeling insecure in all this melodrama, Lee lets composer Terence Blanchard blanket the film with a wall of sound, telling you how to feel and react at any given moment.

Production companies: Touchstone Pictures presents in association with On My Own Produzione Cinematografiche/Rai Cinema presents a 40 Acres and a Mule production.
Cast: Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Pierfrancesco Favino, Valentina Cervi, Matteo Sciabordi, John Turturro, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Director: Spike Lee.
Screenwriter: James McBride.
Based on a novel by: James McBride
Producers: Roberto Cicutto, Luigi Musini, Spike Lee.
Executive producers: Marco Valerio Pugini, Jon Kilik.
Director of photography: Matthew Libatique.
Production designer: Tonino Zera.
Music: Terence Blanchard.
Costume designer: Carlo Poggioli.
Editor: Barry Brown.
Sales: TFI International.
Rated R, 160 minutes.