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Movie Review

Just before the Christmas of 1983, an old man approaches a post office window to buy a stamp. The aged clerk behind the counter, Hector Negron, stares at him briefly, pulls a Luger pistol out of his drawer and shoots his would-be customer point-blank in the chest. When the police check out Hector's apartment, they find that not only is he a religious man and a decorated WWII vet, but he also has the head of a priceless Italian statue in his closet. Questions mount while ...

Hector remembers back to a battered Italy in 1944 where he and his 92nd Division Buffalo Soldiers—a "colored" unit—find themselves in the thick of battle dodging German artillery along with misdirected friendly fire. In the aftermath of the calamitous battle, radioman and translator Hector is cut off behind enemy lines with three fellow soldiers: Staff Sergeant Stamps (an honorable man and natural leader), Sergeant Cummings (a self-focused manipulator) and Private Train (an illiterate gentle giant).

The men set out looking for some kind of town or village to find shelter in. And along the way Train saves a young Italian boy's life. The others want to dump the kid, but Train insists that he stay with them—and when Train stands tall and insists upon something, it happens. With that, the odd quintet makes its way to a small Italian town. There the future's questions will be answered and Hector Negron will be changed forever.

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Positive Elements

Miracle at St. Anna shows people fighting to save their country or defend someone else's. Even though Cummings is quick to point out that he has no great love for "the white man's" America, he and his fellow soldiers fight bravely and, in the end, put their lives on the line for one another. Man-mountain Train rescues a mysteriously quiet Italian boy named Angelo after a roof caves in. He then takes on the emotionally damaged boy's care and pays the ultimate price to protect him.

Spiritual Content

These African-American soldiers readily acknowledge a spiritual aspect to their lives. They cry out for Jesus' and God's aid in the heat of battle. They pray. And they give voice to their faith in God (even when that faith may not always be evident in their actions). Hector, for instance, wears a small cross around his neck that he constantly kisses to remind him "of who my Father is." But he's the one who blows the guy away at the post office. Another GI quotes Proverbs 22:6. But he uses it justify the idea that people have been "trained up" to hate.

Train is especially consumed by his faith and finds spiritual import in everything—though it seems at times to be combined with a back-hills spiritism. (He constantly rubs a statue head for its magic powers, for example.) A number of brief discussions about God take place among the men. In one, Cummings tells Train that the war has stolen away his belief in God, then asks why He would allow all this killing in the world. Train retorts, "If you don't believe, then why do you care if God's allowin' it?"

A group of Italian villagers and a squad of American soldiers are shown separately praying for events in the war. Villagers are gathered outside a church by German soldiers and a priest leads them in the Lord's Prayer. Near the end, an old Hector tells a man, "I just want to join my wife in the glory of heaven."

There is a certain mystical/spiritual air that surrounds young Angelo—an atmosphere that's heightened by Train's obsession with spiritual things. At one point Angelo is wounded and his dead brother shows up to guide him.

Sexual Content

A young Italian woman named Renata finds favor in the eyes of two of the soldiers who hide in her home. She normally wears a low-cut dress or sweater. And while changing clothes, she nonchalantly strips off her blouse and exposes her bare breasts while Stamps (and the camera) watch her closely. She's also seen topless when she starts to disrobe to have sex with Cummings. (The scene cuts after they've groped and kissed for a few seconds.)

A woman in nearly transparent lingerie climbs up on a shirtless man's lap and coos at him for sex. In order to get some inside info on a crime from a police officer, a cub reporter offers to pay for a prostitute's sexual favors for him. A German radio propagandist dubbed Axis Sally wears a slinky, low-cut dress while broadcasting dispiriting news to the American GIs.

Violent Content

St. Anna goes out of its way to illustrate the anguish and heartlessness of war. It demonstrably points out how leaders on both the German and American side disregard human life.

There is a variety of deadly violence displayed throughout, but four dominant war scenes more than earn the movie's R rating all by themselves. Three of these encounters are gun battles between German and American or Italian forces. We see grisly blood bursts, severed limbs, ugly disembowelments and spurting arteries.

The fourth wretch-inducing moment is particularly disturbing because it features the inhuman massacre of kneeling, praying and defenseless Italian townspeople. The butchery starts with an execution-style bullet-to-the-brain shooting of a priest praying for his flock. It continues until the Nazi officer in charge runs out of ammunition. One notably grotesque image amidst the tumult shows a dead and stone-eyed mother in the middle of the crimson carnage with a crying baby clinging to her naked breast. A soldier steps up and bayonets the child.

Crude or Profane Language

Multilingual profanities are spit out in English, German and Italian. The f-word leads the pack with over 20 uses. About 15 s-words follow close behind. There are handfuls of uses of "h---," "d--n," "b--tard," "b--ch" and "a--." The racial slur "n-gger" is spoken at least 10 times. And God's name is combined with "d--n" over 20 times. Vulgar references are made to male and female genitalia.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Soldiers habitually smoke cigarettes or cigars. Renata's family serves wine with a meal. A crack is made about swallowing "happy pills in this nut house."

Other Negative Elements

There are repeated incidents depicting white racist attitudes toward the black soldiers. In one case a soda shop owner refuses to serve African-American men and makes them leave at gunpoint. (The black soldiers charge back in with guns drawn and demand service.) In another scene even the general in charge of the local war campaign shows careless disregard for his men because of their race, saying, "These are First Lady Roosevelt's n-ggers, not ours." Nazi propaganda posters feature disparaging "Negro" caricatures as well as Jesus hanging on a broken cross.

A black soldier spits in a racist white officer's canteen before the man takes a drink.

Conclusion

Film director Spike Lee recently chided Clint Eastwood for creating World War II films Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers without representing black soldiers in battle.

"Many veterans, African-Americans, who survived that war are upset at Clint Eastwood," Lee said. "In his vision of Iwo Jima, Negro soldiers did not exist. Simple as that. I have a different version."

Miracle at St. Anna is that different version. It focuses on four black soldiers who find themselves caught behind enemy lines in war-torn Italy. But Lee seems to have much more on his mind than simply showing black soldiers fighting in WWII.

And so his St. Anna takes on issues of prejudice and racism, examines clashes between cultures thrown together in desperation, wrestles with the evil that is birthed in a time of hostility and death, and it even spotlights the hand-to-hand infighting of differing political dogmas. The film stirs all this stuff together as it attempts to show how a bloody and sometimes horrific pressure cooker called war can separate the righteous from the wicked and the faithful from the faithless.

Somehow, though, that lofty and laudable set of aspirations proves to be beyond St. Anna's reach. Even if you accept as entertainment (and you shouldn't) the minefield of profanities, raw sexuality and gory heaps of bullet-riddled bodies because that's the stuff of war, this film is still an overlong and meandering massacre/murder mystery. It wants to inspire on a whole host of levels, but it's ultimately disjointed and emotionally a misfire.

Worse, Miracle at St. Anna ends with a muddied vision of faith, patriotism, and right and wrong—a weakness that sharply detracts from the African-American heroes at its heart.

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