Spike Lee's Tuscany-set World War II movie, Miracle at St. Anna, is overlong, awkward and unsubtle, yet at the end, when the screen went black and a bracingly clear and fervid chorus broke into the glorious spiritual "He's got the whole world in his hands," my throat tightened and I fought back tears.
For all his excesses and wrong turns, Lee has made a grown-up movie with an adult sense of loss and an adult sense of hope. He may be addicted to broad flourishes, but he has the big emotions to back them up.
Miracle at St. Anna mostly follows four "Buffalo Soldiers" - African-American soldiers fighting in segregated units - as they leapfrog over the rest of the Army's positions and land in a hamlet filled with terrified villagers. Nothing they do there is exceptional. The good, sane sergeant (Derek Luke) spars with the hotheaded, profane Dutch (Michael Ealy) over a love-starved woman, with Hector (Laz Alonso), a Puerto Rican, serving as referee. But as they talk about interacting more easily with Italians than with white Americans or try out jokes and come-ons that sound fresh to their new friends, the actors' total identification with their roles transcends the prosaic scene-making.
Though much of the movie's authenticity and texture - and lumpiness - can be credited to James McBride, who wrote the script from his own novel, what Lee has done with Omar Benson Miller as a huge soldier named Train and Matteo Sciabordi as a young Italian boy named Angelo has a perfection and limpidity unlike anything in the director's previous features. It's more akin to the unself-conscious magic of Lee's documentaries, such as 4 Little Girls. Miller goes beyond "gentle giant" cliches as the GI the boy dubs "the Chocolate Giant."
The source of Miller's strength as a performer is his ability to embody an unshakable serenity; he can be fierce when pushed. Miller makes Train one of those rare people who connects with others spirit to spirit (at least with people who have a spirit). The way Lee guides Sciabordi's fresh, funny, yet also harrowing performance, he's so traumatized that spirit is all that he has left.
Lee and McBride set off fusillades of betrayals and showdowns in the ranks of the Americans, the Italian partisans and the Germans. There's something too Brotherhood of Man-ish in a lot of what Lee does here, such as cutting among Germans, Buffalo Soldiers and an Italian Fascist reciting the same Christian prayer.
But even then, the crisp conviction of the black troops' devotion sets off a righteous tingle in the atmosphere. Lee's most garish ideas in Miracle at St. Anna have a way of trying your patience, then paying off, such as the great German actress Alexandra Maria Lara's turn as Axis Sally, broadcasting seductive agitprop to her "Negro brothers" as they splash fearfully through a stream to the German lines.
The whole movie has a horizontal thrust to it, as if Lee took his visual cue from tapestries and friezes at once dynamic and contemplative. He wants each death to mean something. He may try too hard - his longtime composer, Terence Blanchard, definitely does in his score. It's busy and overemphatic in scenes that need no emphasis at all. But Blanchard must have had a hand in the triumphant choice of that climactic gospel tune.
After the scenes of Nazis slaughtering entire communities - and a final reunion replete with earned poignancy - it's a gift to hear a joyous choral group sing, "He's got you and me, Brother, in his hands." Formally, Miracle at St. Anna may be nothing more than a talented mess. But in the best parts, you feel Lee really does have the sun and the moon and the whole movie in his hands.
Miracle at St. Anna
(Touchstone) Starring Derek Luke, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Michael Ealy, Matteo Sciabordi. Directed by Spike Lee. Rated R for language, combat violence, nudity and sexuality. Time 155 minutes.