Dir. Spike Lee; US/Italy. 2008. 166 mins.

After enjoying the biggest commercial success of his career with the tightly disciplined genre film Inside Man, Spike Lee returns to his freewheeling ways in Miracle At St Anna, an Italy-set World War II story which plays like a jazz improvisation from its composer Terence Blanchard - long, meandering and full of asides - with not enough attention to the plot momentum or characterisation that a 166-minute war film requires.

It will be a tall order to draw wide audiences to this story of four black US soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in 1944 Tuscany. The tone here is inconsistent to say the least, and screenwriter James McBride, who also wrote the film’s source novel, doesn’t take any one character’s point of view throughout, leaving the narrative decidedly unfocused.

In box office terms, it is more likely to perform along the modest lines of Enemy At The Gates or The Great Raid than Saving Private Ryan or Pearl Harbor. African American audiences in the US and audiences in Italy might see it as an event, but remaining global audiences will be unlikely to consider it a must-see, especially with the lack of name stars in the cast.

Like Saving Private Ryan, the story is framed by modern story events. In this case, the film starts in 1983 as Hector Negron, an elderly post-office worker in New York City pulls out a German Lugar on one of his customers and shoots him dead. A young reporter (Gordon-Levitt) and detective (Turturro) look into the case and find a priceless lost artwork from Florence hidden in Negron’s closet.

With that intriguing setup, the film sweeps to the past - to Sept 1944 Italy and an offensive across a river and into enemy lines led by the black soldiers of 92nd Infantry Division (aka The Buffalo Soldiers). Four of the division cross the river and are abandoned by the buffoonish and racist division commander Captain Nokes (Walton Goggins).

The soldiers are the pragmatic staff sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Like), the handsome and charismatic Bishop Cummings (Ealy), Negron and Sam Train (Benson Miller), a gigantic private who finds and becomes friends with an orphaned Italian boy (Matteo Sciabordi).

The four men and the boy seek refuge in a hillside Tuscan town and there they befriend the locals including an old fascist man Ludovico (Antonutti) and his beautiful daughter Renata (Cervi) to whom Stamps and Cummings both are attracted. Soon, they meet the local partisan fighter aka The Great Butterfly (Favino) and his chief lieutenant Rodolfo (Albelli) and develop a plan to escape the surrounding Nazi troops. But there is a traitor in their midst.

The title refers to a massacre that had taken place in a neighbouring town and which has left the boy with no family.

Lee and his cinematographer Libatique create a harsh look for the film, which suits its somber tone and resists romanticizing the picturesque Tuscan setting. However, the Italian characters themselves are generally under-developed and Lee is preoccupied with the plight of the black soldiers.

Lee, of course, is a technically brilliant film-maker and the battle sequences are effectively staged. Best is a surreal scene near the beginning when the black soldiers are advancing while being regaled with the Nazi propaganda rantings of a radio star called Axis Sally (Alexandra Maria Lara in a small but memorable turn).

Production companies

40 Acres And A Mule Filmworks

Touchstone Pictures

On My Own Produzioni

RAI Cinema

US distribution

Buena Vista

International sales

TF1 International


Roberto Cicutto

Luigi Musini

Spike Lee


James McBride

Based on his novel


Matthew Libatique

Main cast

Derek Luke

Michael Ealy

Laz Alonso

Omar Benson Miller

Pierfrancesco Favino

Valentina Cervi

Matteo Sciabordi

John Turturro

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

DB Sweeney

Robert John Burke