Miracle at St. Anna is the latest film from director Spike Lee. It is his first war movie, and arguably only the second action-based thriller after 2007’s Inside Man. The WWII period film actually opens in the early 80’s: A post-office clerk (Laz Alonso) abruptly shoots a customer with a vintage military pistol. An ensuing police investigation finds an Italian stone bust worth millions in the suspect’s apartment. A rookie reporter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) prods him about it, and the main narrative begins: in 1944, four black men, members of the 92nd Infantry "Buffalo Soldiers" fight their way behind enemy lines in Axis-controlled Italy. They include the towering Train (Omar Benson Miller), level-headed Stamps (Derek Luke), preacher turned apostate Bishop (Michael Ealy), and Afro-Latin/de facto translator Hector (Alonso). Train obsessively carries the aforementioned bust, retrieved from a previous battle.
The quartet manages to find shelter in the Italian village of St. Anna- locals there include partisans who fight against the Nazis. The group also looks after an injured Italian boy (Matteo Sciabordi) with a dark secret, whose foreign tongue and vivid imagination endears him to the God-fearing Train. Meanwhile, resident cynic Bishop frequently butts heads with Stamps, not just over orders but in getting the attention of the pretty Renata (Valentina Cervi).
The narrative touches on the conflict and the comfort that the soldiers manage to find in the sleepy village: A Nazi radio broadcast mocks the soldiers’ plight as they fight for a country that won’t allow them to be served at a restaurant (a scene at an American ice cream parlor illustrates this, with a twist); the group openly dance and flirt with local women, and debate whether their efforts will truly have any impact back home. Conflict with a racist commanding officer threatens to undermine everything as Nazis march toward the town.
Lee adapted Miracle at St. Anna from James McBride’s 2004 novel, who also wrote the screenplay. The film even manages to offer some quasi-sympathetic Nazis- one, an officer (who likes to read poetry) whose complaints about lack of food and supplies falls on deaf ears; another, a soldier who balks at slaughter of civilians. The cinematography from Matthew J. Libatique is at least as sympathetic as Ernest Dickerson’s was to Lee’s early work. Lots of wide shots are seen of the Italian countryside, giving scope to how overwhelmed and isolated the four protagonists are.
The film lingers a little too long in a few scenes with the villagers and a sub-plot involving a traitor among the partisans, and a court trial epilogue ends rather abruptly, but overall the story is extremely engaging, a portrait of men who sacrificed greatly not only for their country but for a community that was not afforded the same human rights that were being defended on the world stage.