Saturday, September 27, 2008

Miracle at St. Anna

Last night I watched the latest Spike Lee joint, entitled Miracle at St. Anna. Clocking in at 2 hours and 40 minutes, the film weaves together numerous subplots into the overarching plot involving African-American soldiers in Italy during World War II. I'm hesitant to divulge too much, because there are elements that just shouldn't be spoiled. I will say this - while I wasn't 100% satisfied by the movie (due mostly to some key gimmicks that bugged me), I felt that I got my money's worth. There is much to like in the movie - and there are scenes that will resonate long after you are done seeing the film (such as the river crossing early in the film - but that's all I'll say).

I'm a little surprised at the number of negative reviews I have seen (there are plenty of positive ones, albeit with caveats similar to my own). One reviewer from Entertainment Weekly (grade = C-) said that "the disappointment of the film begins with what a hard time I had finding Spike Lee in it." He closes his review saying "the real trouble with Miracle is that Lee's filmmaking is joyless."

Whatever one says about the film, the above two quotes need to be strongly refuted.

I'll tackle the last quote first - I wonder if this EW reviewer and I watched the same film. The film is exuberant, and if the subject matter is often without joy (i.e. extremely gory battle scenes, as well as Nazi atrocities), Spike Lee's emotional attachment to his subject is evident throughout, as he weaves war footage with Italian neo-realism, creating a shimmering collage of images, if not an entirely cohesive one (as others have pointed out). Lee seemed to me to be especially influenced by Federico Fellini, as well as The Bicycle Thief and similar Italian films, which, while not always about the happiest of subjects, are created in such a way that one cannot help but feel joy at human existence.

As for the accusation that Spike Lee's stamp could not be found - what utter nonsense. While Lee appears to be going for the Oscar gold in this film (and indeed, he stands to be nominated), he has not at all left behind the key topic that permeates his work - race relations and racism itself. Miracle at St. Anna is coated with this theme. One African-American soldier laments that he feels more free in Nazi-controlled Italy than he does in his own country. There is a flashback scene to the South, the contents of which I won't reveal except to say it deals with inherent racism in American society. Spike Lee's presentation of racism is not one-dimensional - he shows us that black soldiers can be guilty of racism against whites as well, while at the same time illustrating that not all Germans were sadistic lunatics devoid of human emotions (though plenty of that sort can be seen in the movie). No one group of people in the film (African-American soldiers, white American soldiers, Nazi soldiers, or Italian civilians) can uniformally be designated "good" or "bad." Lee brings attention to individuals' faults and merits in a way that dissolves stereotypes (good or bad) about various ethnic groups.

In spite of the film's flaws (which I cannot entirely reveal without spoiling the film), I have to recommend seeing it. I don't think there is another film this year that can inspire so much discourse on a variety of topics. An average Spike Lee film will do the same, but I don't think he has made such a conversation-worthy film since Malcolm X. Take the time to see it, and weigh the film's missteps against its accomplishments, and then let me know what you think.

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