Basing the film on actual events that happened in Italy during World War II to members of the U.S Army's 92nd Infantry Division -- the black servicemen who inherited the historical name of Buffalo Soldiers -- Lee and McBride manage to give us many things: a war film, a story of camaraderie, a tale of a lost little boy, a diatribe against American racism (military and civilian), a mystery, and, in the words of Lee in a recent interview, an "African-American Italian neo-realist film."
And despite a few plot strands that don't quite jibe (a repeated bit about "the sleeping man" makes for a nice cinematic moment near the end but doesn't add to the story), this may be the best (or at least most accomplished) film in Lee's wonderfully erratic career.
It opens in 1983 Harlem with a startling sequence, then flashes back to 1944 Tuscany, where four soldiers (played by Laz Alonzo, Derek Luke, Michael Ealy and Omar Benson Miller) are the sole survivors of their unit, trapped under fire behind German lines. They're trapped because a white officer has refused to send them help -- which only confirms the kind of race prejudice that they encountered during basic training back in the States.
We get some well-written, well-delivered dialogue along the lines of "this is a white man's war" -- no surprise in a Spike Lee joint -- but there's also some tenderness that comes from one of the soldiers, Sam Train, finding and protecting young Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi) after the boy is injured in a bombing. From there, the film only gets more personal. Trying to get to safety, the men encounter both partisans and fascists among the Italians. Among the partisans are members of a close-knit family; among the family is the beautiful Renata (Valentina Cervi), who speaks some English. Conveniently, Alonso's character, Hector, speaks some Italian.
With that lead-in, Lee manages to show us the war, the desperate situations of our four heroes, and the political circumstances in Italy from the points of view of the Americans, the Germans, the Italian family, and the partisans hiding in the woods.
But this is a war movie that's more than merely violent. Lee's points of light include big Sam Train and little Angelo finding ways to communicate, even though neither speaks the other's language. And despite the ongoing war, the Italians keep some semblance of normalcy by staging a joyous community dance in their church.
Lee's real triumph here, though, is the way he brings all of the stories together -- by introducing some intrigue with the possibility of a traitor among the partisans, by adding in a little romance where you'd least expect it, and by having just about everyone toss in their views on religion. Lee even veers from his portrayal of Nazis as cold-hearted murderers to show one of them (but only one) as having more than a single face.
Still, Lee infuses the film with equal parts of carnage and awe-inspiring visuals of the Tuscan countryside. When he neatly ties everything up back in the '80s, viewers likely won't realize that 160 minutes have gone by. But they'll know that Lee has definitely found a new voice as a director.
MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA
Directed by Spike Lee
Starring Laz Alonzo, Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Omar Benson Miller