Of Miracles and Men
A media controversy has exploded in Italy and the United States over Spike Lee’s recently-released film, “The Miracle at St. Anna,” based on a novel by the same name written by James McBride. As screenings opened in Italy, veteran partisans and their organization the ANPI, as well as survivors from the notorious Nazi massacre at Sant’Anna da Stazzema (August 12, 1944), have protested what they see as an insulting and historically inaccurate portrait of the armed Resistance. Giorgio Bocca, the dean of Italian Resistance historians opened an attack in the pages of “La Repubblica;” Lee has responded that he did not intend to denigrate the partisans but that he stands by his film. As an historian of the Resistenza and one of the few people who have both read the book and seen the film, I would like to comment on the interpretation of book, film and historical fact.
The story concerns four black American soldiers, part of the segregated Buffalo Soldiers of the American Army, caught behind German lines in Tuscany in 1944. One soldier, the sympathetic Sam Train, rescues an Italian child after a bombing. The child, whom Train takes to be an angel (and is actually named Angelo), thinks his savior to be a “chocolate giant.” For their part, the black American soldiers come to realize that the Italian peasants see them as men, soldiers and Americans; the color of their skin is a curiosity, not a condemnation. The “miracle” of Sant’Anna is not only the rescue of Angelo, but that black men come to be seen as men, and not black.
Those blaming the partigiani for Nazi massacres are repeating, almost word-for-word, what the SS officer responsible for the massacre at Sant’Anna di Stazzema says in the film. In what is perhaps a fictitious scene, he berates the “partisan” traitor for the massacre; it was THEIR fault! In shifting moral responsibility for this massacre (and effect others as well) he effectively absolves himself, the German Wehrmacht, the SS, Italian fascism and National Socialism and conveniently places the blame on the partisans. This is a cynical re-writing of history. James McBride should be commended for rescuing the story of the Buffalo Soldiers from the dustbin of history; Spike Lee should be congratulated on a strong, but flawed film; readers and viewers should run to bookstores and the cinema and judge for themselves. Last night, Spike Lee and President Giorgio Napolitano were to have screened the film together; no word yet of their conversation.