Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Miracle at St. Anna

A few notes on Spike Lee's new film, which I found mostly disappointing. Miracle at St. Anna continues Spike Lee's interest in intervening in the traditional representations of race in American genre cinema. This is clear from the opening sequence in the film, in which an elderly war veteran, Hector Negron (Laz Alonzo) responds passionately while watching on television the John Wayne war film The Longest Day (1962). Hector is responding to the film's exclusion of the reality of African-American soldiers from its narrative, and clearly his response is meant to parallel Lee's own. But did Lee's revision of World War II history, which admirably attempts to redress the historical lack of focus on the African American experience of World War II, have to reproduce so many of the genre's tired conventions? In the end, despite its virtues, I did not feel illuminated by the experience of The Miracle at St. Anna; I felt I was watching a tired genre retread which only superficially refigures the history of its genre.

The film has its virtues. The measured sentimentalism of Italian neorealism is ably reproduced by Lee in a subplot about a gentle soldier named Private Train (Omar Benson Miller) who benevolently protects an Italian boy orphaned during a Nazi massacre at the St. Anna church. Their interaction is lifted from a roughly similar relationship between an African American soldier and a young Italian boy in Roberto Rossellini's Paisan (which is, strangely enough, one of the least sentimental, and most unflinching, of Italian neorealist films) and their scenes introduce a healthy dose of magical realism that Lee handles admirably. In fact, early in the film the theme of imagination as a form of resistance which their friendship inaugurates seems to echo the film's own playful narrative and stylistic patterns (including Lee's own frequent shifts in tone, from the comical to the tragic sometimes within the same sequence).

At times, too, the ways Lee deals with the affects of symbolism within his own story is powerful. One sequence in which Lee's soldiers rip down racist depictions of black soldiers in Italian fascist propaganda is moving (although Lee seems to pull his punches in just barely suggesting that similar kinds of offending images existed in American propaganda as well). But his own use of symbolism is overrloaded and polysemic to the point of incoherence. (The Italians in the film frequently refer to "The sleeping man in the mountain" - a mountain which in profile takes on the form of a sleeping giant, and which for them seems to gesture towards their resistance to Fascism - but what are we to be anything besides exasperated when Lee insists on drawing an obtuse parallel between the sleeping giant and Private Train?) Lee also pays homage to Paisan in an encounter between a young Italian woman, Renata (played in St. Anna by the beautiful and engaging Valentina Cervi) and two American soldiers, Bishop (Michael Ealy) and Stamps (Derek Luke) here amplified by Lee to include his recurring motif of biracial sexual attraction. Cervi is talented and her scenes with Lee's actors are frequently convincing on a basic dramatic level. Unfortunately, Cervi's character becomes a mere cipher through which the characters of Bishop and Stamps work out their spiritual conflicts (for Bishop, she's a sign of his fall from grace, and for Stamps, a sign of purity amidst the degradations of war - or something similarly hoary). What was social commentary in Jungle Fever here feels like a narrative device that Lee can't quite situate within either the history of American race relations during the 1940s or the confrontation between blacks and Italians during the war; what's worse, the tension between two different soldiers over Cervi's affections positions her character as alternately saint or whore, with little left that is human in between, resulting in what has to be one of Lee's weakest female characters. Numerous other subplots (including the experience of several Italian resistance fighters) constitute some of the weakest scenes Lee has ever filmed. In the end, I was left wishing he had just made an Inside Man sequel: in other words, I left depressed.

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