Wednesday, October 22, 2008

London Film Festival Catch-Up - MIRACLE AT ST ANNA

MIRACLE AT ST ANNA is a big, baggy war epic about the African-American experience in World War Two. Writer-director Spike Lee tackles big themes intelligently and just about keeps a hold of all the complex material in the movie.

The key question the movie asks is what stance African-American soldiers should have taken during the war. After all, in the US they were facing extreme racism - as shown in a pivotal scene in the centre of the film in which German POWs are treated better than African-American serving officers. And even when they were fighting, we see white commanding officers treat the African-American troops with disdain - actively putting their lives at risk because they fundamentally don't accord them the same value. So how far should the African-American soldiers identify with and support the war effort? The argument is played out in the conflict between Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy) and Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke). Bishop is in the war for what he can get - which is a good time where possible. He isn't going to try to get on with his white senior officers. By contrast, Stamps sees the war as a means to self-advancement. He wants to do well and get ahead, believing that the war will fundamentally change attitudes back home.

A second question the movie deals with is how far we should take direct action for a just cause when innocent people will be hurt by it. The Italian partisans in the movie are fighting against the Germans, but the villages they hide out in are subject to vicious retaliation. The partisan leader, Peppi Grotto (Pierfrancesco Favino) feels immense guilt for having indirectly caused the massacre of innocent villagers.

The third question the film deals with is the question of faith. Throughout the film, one of the most apparently dim-witted of the soliders, Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) believes that the marble statue that he is carting around is a lucky charm. It's easy to mock train because he's such a dolt, but the statue does serially provide a sort of protection to whoever is holding it. It even allows one of the soldiers to survive the campaign and live to a ripe old age in New York when, in the movie's framing device, he finally takes revenge on the partisan who betrayed them.

The guts of this film are well executed and intelligently told. Spike Lee is at his best when he's confronting the subtle tensions in race politics. But there's too much romantic sentimental jibberish that muddies the movie. Most egregiously, the relationship between Train and a little Italian boy he's taking care of is sweet - and speaks to the mythology of the statue - but is deeply distracting. It's also weird that in a movie of subtle conflicts and flawed characters, Spike Lee has created a mythic simple-minded good guy. Train seems two-dimensional compared to everyone else in the film. The second major flaw is the denoument - which is pure unadulterated schmaltz that seems about as realistic as the final scene in Shawshank (which I think everyone agrees was unnecessary.)

MIRACLE AT ST ANNA played Toronto and London 2008 and was released last month in the US.

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