Spike Lee Goes to War With 'St. Anna'

By Sheri Jennings
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 28, 2008; Page M05

ROME -- It's early autumn in 1944, and the Nazis are advancing on the Italian front. Four American soldiers deployed to fight Hitler's notorious 16th SS Panzer Grenadier Division are separated from their unit behind enemy lines. Soon they stumble onto the site of an unspeakable massacre . . .

It's a World War II film all right, and while some of the themes may ring familiar, this one has taken the genre in a new direction. That's because the actors are playing members of the Army's 92nd Infantry Division or the "Buffalo Soldiers," mostly African Americans from the Southern states, some 3,000 of whom died fighting on Italian soil. And secondly, because the director is Spike Lee, a filmmaker famous for his sharp, cinematic portraits of contemporary African American society.

So how did Spike Lee end up making a war movie? "Growing up in Brooklyn I always enjoyed war films, and this is one genre I have not done before," Lee said in Rome last December, as he wrapped up nine weeks of principal photography in Tuscany and Rome. Called "Miracle at St. Anna," the movie -- which begins in modern-day New York, flashes back to 1944 Italy and ends in present-day Bahamas -- tells the story of a regiment of African American soldiers deployed to Tuscany during World War II and the local villagers they meet.

Reviews of the film, which opened Friday, have not been kind, many calling it a muddled, overly long film filled with ethnic cliches; it remains to be seen if audiences will embrace Lee's two hour 40 minute epic.

Lee said this particular story interested him because of the soldiers' inner conflict. "I've always felt the black soldiers' contribution to World War II is greatly misestimated. . . . They were fighting for their country but still being treated as second-class citizens at home."

Even so, the director insisted that the film isn't only about the black soldiers. Lee pointed to a divisive situation in Italy at the time, with Benito Mussolini's fascist government allied with the Nazis, who tried to flush out partisan pockets of resistance. "We have two groups of people trying to find a common ground to communicate," Lee said. "The people in the village, which these four Buffalo Soldiers have stumbled into, have never seen black people before in their life. . . . They have been waiting two or three years for the Allies to come, but they never thought it would be black soldiers."

On a misty day in December 2007 at Rome's Cinecittà Studios, Studio 14 is silent as Lee sits behind a monitor with a handful of local crew and actors looking on. A young Italian boy's expressive face is center frame. The boy (Matteo Sciabordi) and a German deserter are in a Tuscan barn, bidding an emotional farewell under the watchful eyes of two of the Buffalo Soldiers, who then drag them apart. Matteo was selected from an open casting call held in Florence that saw 5,000 hopefuls turn out for the part. True to story, Lee's cast is a mix of American and European actors, including Derek Luke ("Antwone Fisher"), Laz Alonso and Michael Ealy (both D.C. natives) and Omar Benson Miller as the Buffalo Soldiers, as well as John Turturro, John Leguizamo, Italy's Pierfrancesco Favino, Valentina Cervi and Germany's Christian Berkel.

Lee commanded the multilingual and multicultural set with ease and modesty. "It's the end of the shoot," he said and laughed, implying that the cast and crew were all used to one another by now. "The Americans are speaking in English, the Italians in Italian and the Germans in German. I did not want any of those "Hogan's Heroes" Colonel Klink characters. We want everyone to speak their natural languages. We think this will give authenticity."

The film's Italian producer, Roberto Cicutto, explained that they knew Lee was "not just coming to Italy to make a film as an American director, but to make a film that belongs to his culture and to our history." That's why he and partner Luigi Musini took a risk and gave the first $8.74 million "before we were sure the film would be made." Cicutto and Musini would eventually co-produce "Miracle at St. Anna" with Lee's 40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks. Lee's reputation as a hugely admired director in Europe, where he served on the prestigious Jury of the Venice Film Festival in 2004, also helped them obtain two-thirds of the financing abroad through Italy's Rai Cinema and France's TF1. The remaining backing came from Touchstone Pictures, which is releasing the picture in U.S. theaters.

The Tuscan regional government gave Lee permission to film in many locations, including the site of the real massacre: Sant'Anna di Stazzema, where on Sept. 14, 1944 Nazi troops murdered 560 women, children and elderly people.

The tragic past of the location has not gone forgotten in Italy, and when Lee announced the project at a Rome news conference in July 2007, surviving partisans, Buffalo Soldiers and even Enrico Pieri -- a child who survived the massacre while his entire family was murdered -- were on hand. On that day the now elderly Pieri spoke through tears as he described how he has struggled with that event in ensuing years.

Setting the stage for the massacre, which is dramatized as a flashback and shot by Lee's frequent director of photography, Matthew Libatique, required particular care. "As far as Italy is concerned, that is a national monument."

For Lee, "Miracle at St. Anna" sees the fruition of an idea sparked long ago: to make a film in Italy. "I have been coming to Italy every year since doing the press for 'She's Gotta Have It' in 1986 . . . Italian journalists kept asking me, 'When are you going to shoot an Italian film here?' And my answer was: I love coming here, but I got to find a story first."

He found the story when his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, came across a work of historical fiction titled "Miracle at St. Anna," by James McBride. The author's first book was the race and integration memoir "The Color of Water," a national bestseller.

Speaking about the film, McBride, who also wrote the screenplay, underscores the devastating meaning behind the story: "It's hard for Italy to process this painful time in its history. It has taken 60 years for us to reach a point where we can discuss it."

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