Movie Review for Miracle at St. Anna (2008)

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Review #695 of 365
Movie Review of Miracle at St. Anna (2008) [R] 160 minutes
WIP™ Scale: $14.50
Where Viewed: United Artists Denver Pavilions Stadium 15, Denver, CO
When Seen: 27 September 2008 @ 10:30 pm
DVD Release Date: Unscheduled (please check back)
After the Credits: There is nothing
Unsung member of the crew: Set Decorator—Christina Onori

Soundtrack: Download now from Terence Blanchard - Miracle At St. Anna (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) - or - order the CD below

Directed by: Spike Lee (Inside Man)
Written by: James McBride (debut) based on his novel

Featured Cast (Where You Might Remember Him/Her From):
Derek Luke (Lions for Lambs) • Michael Ealy ("Sleeper Cell") • Laz Alonso (This Christmas) • Omar Benson Miller (Things We Lost in the Fire) • Pierfrancesco Favino (The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian ) • Valentina Cervi (Resto della notte, Il) • Matteo Sciabordi (debut) • John Turturro (You Don't Mess with the Zohan) • Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Stop-Loss) • John Leguizamo (Righteous Kill) • Kerry Washington (Lakeview Terrace) • D.B. Sweeney ("Jericho") • Sergio Albelli (Te lo leggo negli occhi)

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Usually, at least a few times a year, when I'm sitting watching a movie unfold, I start to get a feeling that I could be watching the Academy Award®-winner for Best Picture. One film each year will win. It could be any of them. Well, actually, no, there are hundreds and hundreds released that everyone knows won't win. But, there's something about all the films that get nominated and eventually win, something that binds them all…Amazing story, brilliant direction, incredible acting, and usually a little bit of controversy. Enter, Spike Lee, no neophyte to controversy, and his rendition of James McBride's Miracle at St. Anna. This is an incredible story on an epic-film scale. There used to be a time when pretty much you had to make an epic to get the Best Picture award, but, lately that's changed. In the old days, there's no way Miracle at St. Anna wouldn't be a front-runner for Best Picture. Last year's 3:10 to Yuma had the same feeling, and it didn’t' get nominated. Oh, no, it starred Russell Crow and Christian Bale, so apparently either one now means, no nominations for acting or Best Picture. What a shame. So, let's get to that which is the film version of Miracle at St. Anna.

Well, it begins near the end of the story, which is also a classic sign of a Best Picture nominee, with a murder. In cold blood, a postal clerk shoots a guy who asks to buy a stamp. He does it in front of dozens of witnesses, and seemingly without any logical reason. He is swiftly arrested by police and hauled to jail. A young reporter by the name of Tim Boyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) hassles the lead investigator, Detective Antonio 'Tony' Ricci (John Turturro) until he given him a lead that will help him cover the case. The tip takes him to the suspected perpetrator's apartment in New York City where they find little except the long-missing head of Italian statue of a bridge marker that represented spring worth, according to experts, millions of dollars. Tim goes to interview the suspect in prison as he awaits for trial, and asks him why he did it. The question prompts him to utter "I know who the sleeping many is!", and we are transported back in time via his memories to reflect upon the events that led him to this pivotal point in his life.

It is 1944 in the Tuscany region of Italy. The Fox Company of the US Army Buffalo soldiers is under orders to cross a field and river to secure the area. As the move decisively across the battlefield, they are on alert for a potential ambush of the German Army at any moment from the unsuspecting hillside. The men are talking. Some are wishing they were back home. Some are proud to serve their country. Some are too chatty and others are too quiet. All are black. For the Buffalo soldiers were a controversial experiment to see if black people could serve in combat rather than just in support position in the military. The leading characters in the group were:

• 2nd Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke)—the swift, steady, ranking leader of the group,

• Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy)—the suave, handsome, ladies man,

• Corporal Hector Negron (Laz Alonso)—the dark skinned Puerto Rican, radio operator fluent in Italian, Spanish, and English, and

• Private First Class Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller)—the gentle giant with a heart of gold who hauls a satchel with the broken head of a statue tied to his belt everywhere he goes believing it to be "worth something" and able to protect him from harm. Events of the next few hours in their life will see their company decimated by a German attack that could have been prevented if only the white regional commander had trusted the intel radioed in by Stamps, who with the few others mentioned above were the only ones to survived the initial onslaught and then the subsequent onslaught. The four men eventually end up in a small village where they are taken in by a family of Italians who do not support Mussolini's decision to join with Hitler. In the interim, Train is drawn to an abandoned home where he encounters a little boy he'll later learn is named Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi). The two bond after a near fatal bombing of the home. Angelo believes the "chocolate giant" is a mythical being sent by the heavens to save him, and he verifies this with his imaginary friend, Arturo to whom he speaks constantly. Naturally, the Italians, especially Renata (Valentina Cervi) the eldest daughter of the patriarch of the family with whom they are now staying, are more interested in helping the injured little boy than even their American liberators. We learn outside the village there's a US Army post somewhere and a German Army post. The Germans are preparing for an all out assault of the renegade villages that, fueled by the assaults of Italian partisans, the most infamous of whom is called the Butterfly, have remained in opposition to the German takeover. But two distractions from the quest have risen up. The first is the aforementioned Butterfuly who must be captured and killed, and the second is a German solider named Hans Brundt (Jan Pohl) who's gone AWOL.

what happens next is a series of complex interacting events and steps all of which eventually reveal the tragedy and miracle at St. Anna. Please read the spoiler for more details. Suffice it to say for now that unimaginable tragedies ensue eventually culminating in a confrontation between the US commander and our US Soldier heroes of the village whereby Train refuses to give up Angelo and nearly strangles a Lieutenant for trying to separate them followed by a major battle with the German army whose agenda of eliminating 'the Butterfly' and capturing Hans Brundt has not faltered. The film then ends just right, with a final couple of scenes that supply the answers to the mysterious murder some forty years later.

Bringing James McBride's novel to the screen was an ambitious project for any director, but the unique talents and character insights of Spike Lee were just the right combination to tackle the complicated project. He does so with incredible respect for the narrative and the richly drawn characters whom, by the end, there's not one who dies without honor. The bulk of the story occurs in Italy with subtitles for all of the Italian and German spoken. There is a lot to absorb just as to what's going on on the surface, let alone the discoveries of what's really going on beneath. There is a connection (spoiler) between Angelo, 'the Butterfly', and the AWOL Brundt that fuels the climax of the film so dramatically and powerfully as to become permanently embedded in your mind. There were, of course, the well-known atrocities of WWII especially as they related to the Holocaust, but there were many others, smaller scale, but nonetheless diabolical.

… an incredibly powerful story, Miracle at St. Anna is a revolutionary work and a true American film masterpiece.
This film tells of just one more. As you watch the film though, you become steeped in the history as well as the emotions of those characters in the story. There's much to be learned about this first attempt at utilizing black people for live combat duty, something which the Germans, masters of psychological warfare and their Axis Sally (Alexandra Maria Lara) corrupt into an idea of the masters sending the slaves to war to die for them, and there have to be times when the men wondered if this were not just the case. The detestable racism of which the USA is still not rid, rears its head in unseemly ways throughout the film providing historical context and a necessary journey through the history. Most middle-aged and younger USAers will find it hard to believe there was a time when citizens of this country could not fight side-by-side due to the color of their skin until we remember that prejudice against gay people in the military still lives large as the last acceptable and often legal prejudice tolerated in the USA. The film therefore, forces viewers of all races, creeds, and religions to go to a lot of uncomfortable places either in remembering the history of one's own ancestry or in witnessing the power of hate to cause endless misery and death. The film's story and the outcome of WWII, of course, prove that evil, historically, does not prevail though many thousands of innocent lives were lost in the conflict.

With an incredibly complex and masterful story filled with suspense, action, love and war, Miracle at St. Anna the film represents a masterpiece of American filmmaking. The cast is something to behold as well. Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, and Omar Benson Miller serve as the film's principle actors in the leading roles, and they do so with understated elegance. There's not a weak link among them, and each brings his character to life with pride and without stereotypes too common in films today. The cast of Italians and Germans, though with smaller roles were also exceptional especially Valentina Cervi and Pierfrancesco Favino the latter who played the villages long, lost son Peppi Grotta. But probably none outshined the incredible little boy, Matteo Sciabordi who played the whimsical Angelo. Not since Haley Joel Osment, has a child actor so splendidly realized such an important role in an epic film. He's absolutely astonishing. But, then, those words should be used to describe the film in general. With it's unsuspecting title and without some gigantic studio marketing job, Miracle at St. Anna surprises out of the box.
___________Note: Please See After Thoughts regarding controversies surrounding Spike Lee's Miracle of St. Anna

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Related Products from
Other Projects Featuring Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
Cast Members
Derek LukeMichael EalyLaz Alonso
Omar Benson MillerPierfrancesco FavinoValentina Cervi
Matteo SciabordiJohn TurturroJoseph Gordon-Levitt
John LeguizamoD.B. Sweeney
Spike Lee
James McBride

Review-lite Miracle at St. Anna (2008) [max of 150 words]
An epic no less powerful or worthy than Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan or Eastwood's Flags of our Fathers, Spike Lee delivers his adaptation of James McBride's Miracle at St. Anna. Following the complex journey of four black members of the Fox Company as they face certain death from German onslaughts eventually arriving in a small village protected by Italian partisans, the story is of incredible historical significance even as it deviates from conventionally subscribed Italian history. With exceptional performances by principle actors: Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, and Omar Benson Miller and the wonderful little boy, Matteo Sciabordi, who played the whimsical Angelo; and an incredibly powerful story, Miracle at St. Anna is a revolutionary work and a true American film masterpiece. Do not miss it!

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