Miracle at St. Anna

Spike Lee doesn’t do himself any favors by being such a strident, humorless jackass in real life, but he can sure make a good movie when he wants to. “Miracle at St. Anna,” based on a novel by James McBride, is an accomplished, powerful World War II drama with elements of “Saving Private Ryan,” magical realism (is that a ghost talking to that boy?), and a thousand other war-is-hell pictures. It’s unusually ambitious for Lee, and though it has a significant flaw that I’ll get to later, it remains a worthy entry in the canon of battlefield epics.

The primary setting is Tuscany, Italy, in 1944, where four black American soldiers are separated from their unit and stranded behind enemy lines. Holed up in a small village, their leader, Stamps (Derek Luke), manages to make radio contact with his racist captain (Walton Goggins), who tells them to make the best of the situation by capturing a German soldier and interrogating him about a rumored surprised attack. Someone will be there to extract the four soldiers in a couple days.

In the meantime, Stamps and Bishop (Michael Ealy), one of his group, both have eyes on Renata (Valentina Cervi), a beautiful local woman whose family has given the soldiers a place to stay. A third soldier, Hector (Laz Alonso), speaks enough Italian to communicate with the locals, and Renata speaks some English. The fourth soldier is Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), a hulking, gentle, simple-minded man who rescued an injured Italian boy (Matteo Sciabordi) and has appointed himself as his protector.

There are stereotypes here, both ethnic (Train is the kind of big dummy who yells “Lawdy lawd!” when things go awry) and war-movie (in a quiet moment, someone asks, “Why you think God allows this killing all over the world?”). But over time, three of the four soldiers are established as three-dimensional characters — the exception being Stamps, who remains inscrutably stoic (though likable nonetheless).

What’s more, the story grows impressively deeper and more complex as it unfolds. The Nazis, the Italians, and the Italian resistance movement are all involved. There are mysteries relating to the injured boy’s home village and what happened there. All the characters speak the language they ought to speak (with subtitles, where necessary), adding a layer of authenticity to the well-researched, well-designed production.

Perhaps most significantly, while the focus is sometimes on the American soldiers’ race, Lee’s tone is never preachy or off-putting. The four men’s attitudes on race relations are honest, and they vary from one man to another. The fact is, they’re freer in Italy than they were back in the American South, and if a flashback to an ugly incident at a redneck-owned diner lays it on a little thick, you can overlook it in light of the film’s more elegant sequences.

Consider this: These guys volunteered to fight for, and possibly die for, a country that subjugates them. Wouldn’t that steam you just a little if you were in their shoes? “Miracle at St. Anna” makes it hard not to consider these men’s situation — which, when you think about it, is what all good movies seek to do.

The significant flaw that I alluded to earlier pertains to the scenes at the beginning and end, which are set in 1983 and ’84, with one of the surviving soldiers encountering an old enemy. This framing story is possibly unnecessary (the film is already more than 2 1/2 hours long, you know) and definitely corny. The final scenes are ridiculous enough, bafflingly so, to reduce my estimation of the whole enterprise. Lee took a big gamble, and it failed completely.

But the real film, the 130 minutes or so set in 1944, is exciting, exhausting, and emotionally engaging. This might be the most accessible and skillful work of Lee’s career, and I’m glad to see it.

B (2 hrs., 46 min.; R, a fair amount of graphic war violence, some harsh profanity, some nudity, brief sexuality.)