Miracle at St. Anna begins with a “random” act of violence with no apparent motive in New York City on December 19, 1983. That’s the first mystery. The second mystery begins when a priceless, lachrymose artifact is found in the perpetrator’s closet. An intrepid and zealous reporter, Tim Boyle (Joseph Gordon Levitt) goes to see the accused murder, Corporal Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) and through the course of the interview, the most substantial aspect of Miracle at St. Anna begins. That portion of the film is during World War II in Tuscany, Italy in 1944. Negron is part of a Buffalo Soldiers unit, the 92 Infantry Division. Almost from the outset of the 92’s march toward a river the higher ups don’t think they’ll be able to cross, director Spike Lee lays down the reality of black soldiers fighting for a country that would in a heartbeat oppress them and deny them their civil liberties. These truths are not delivered haphazardly as were the acts of violence during the riots in the third act of Gangs of New York. In Miracle at St. Anna, they are broadcast by a seductive, German-accented voice owned by an equally seductive German woman who most-likely has never seen an actual black person in her entire life.
The three other main characters in Miracle at St. Anna, 2nd Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy) and Private First Class Sam Train (Omar Benson), along Negron, soon find themselves across the river in enemy territory. Here they encounter a small Italian boy, Angelo Torancelli (Malteo Sciabordi), who seems to be suffering from dementia. Angelo is predisposed to talking to an imaginary friend named Arturo (Leonardo Borzonaca) in front of everyone. When the five of them end up at an Appennine village at the base of a mountain referred to by locals as The Sleeping Man, they encounter a myriad of Italians, people that bare no racial prejudice to them once-so-ever.
Miracle at St. Anna, as the name implies, is abundant with religious themes and when the band of five reach the village, they become more and more prevalent. Once in relative safety, the soldiers’ personalities begin coming out, especially those of Bishop and more notably Train, who is the most religiously garrulous person in the film. The surprise background of the four soldiers belongs to Bishop. Most viewers would never guess Bishop’s previous occupation before the war by his behavior in the village. It’s almost equal to Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks)’s revelation in Saving Private Ryan. All throughout Miracle at St. Anna there are character establishing moments like this, flash backs, friends made, bonds strengthened and betrayals. This helps when the film hits instances of slow drama.
While in the village, the aforementioned two mysteries in Miracle at St. Anna slowly begin to unravel with the introduction of new plot elements, one of which beginning a Partisan rebel leader, Peppi “The Great Butterfly” Brotta (Pierfrancesco Favino), his men and a German prisoner.
Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna, based on The Miracle of Sant’Anna by James MacBride, is not a flawless work of cinema but the substance of its mysteries and its other details are more than enough to hold the viewers’ interest. Not only does Miracle at St. Anna bring to the attention of the pop culture generation the atrocity that happened at Sant’Anna di Stazzema on August 12, 1944 during World War II, where 560 people died (116 of them children), it also provides an opportunity to see the heroism of black soldiers during that war, an important footnote rarely given so much screen time.