Friday, April 24, 2009

History, Movies, and a Massacre in Italy

It's a safe bet that most Americans don't know that April 25 is a national holiday in Italy: Festa della Liberazione, or Liberation Day. It celebrates Italy's deliverance from fascism during World War II in 1945 and honors the Italian resistance. Our ignorance about Italy in World War II can be blamed partly on Hollywood. In the World War II years, American films such as Sahara or A Walk In the Sun portrayed Italians as friendly or fumbling. Such movies made the Italians under Mussolini seem like less of a threat, but they didn't help Americans understanding the complexity of wartime Italy. The latest American film about Italy in World War II, Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna, doesn't do anything useful to redress this problem.

In Miracle, Lee's goal is less an understanding of Italy than a valorization of African American soldiers in World War II. By itself, that's a worthwhile goal. Unfortunately, Lee attempts this in a sprawling and uneven film that mixes fact and fiction about wartime Italy in ways that have left some Italians infuriated.

Miracle tells a complicated story about Black GIs from the 92nd Infantry Division fighting in Tuscany. This is a story worth telling because, for utterly racist reasons, Black troops in World War II were often relegated to supporting roles like trucking and graves registration.

The problem with Lee's film, which has an exceptionally tangled plot, is that it weaves together real American racism, fictional GIs, a real massacre perpetrated by the Germans, and fictional Italian partisans. The resulting film introduces American audiences to the bigotry of white American officers commanding Black troops. But it also suggests that the resistance was infiltrated by traitors and that a German massacre of 560 civilians at Sant’ Anna di Stazzema was somehow triggered by partisan attacks or made possible by partisan perfidy.

This angers Italians who believe that the massacre was a simple atrocity staged to intimidate people. To make matters worse, for years Italian governments bent on post-war "normalization" did not acknowledge the killings, and only recently tried the Germans accused of the crime. (They were found guilty in absentia.)

In Italy today, where right-wing neo-fascism is a political movement of disturbing dimensions, the history of the Italian resistance in World War II--which was dominated by the left--is a politically-charged subject. It is also a great topic for historical debate and analysis in a Europe that is only recently coming to grips with the moral complexities of World War II--including, as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli points out, the popularity of fascism.

But in Miracle at St. Anna, fact and fiction mix so promiscuously that most American viewers are likely to come away confused or misled. If Miracle presented itself simply as a work of fiction, that wouldn't bother me that much. But by draping his film in the aura of history, Lee assumed an obligation beyond storytelling.

Lee succeeded in telling Americans about the courage of Black GIs. But the story of the Italians in World War II deserves much, much better.


Unknown said...

Rob: Your comments on Lee's film are important and sadly lacking in the American commentary I've read. Having only seen the film a few weeks ago, I found it impossinly inept in plotting, plodding in its pacing, and predictable in its composition of black GI characters. But, as you so astutely observe, its view of Italy and fascism was inexcusably simplistic and relativistic, replete with Good Germans (Das Boot on land) and a resistance peppered with fascists! In any case, many thanks!

Rob Snyder said...

Thsnnks, Josh.

And for anyone who wants to read a great article about the history of the postwar Italian Communist Party, and how its combination of real strengths and enormous blunders led to today's Italy, where neo-fascists are a real presence in government, check out Perry Anderson's "An Invertebrate Left" in the 12 March 2009 LOMDON REVIEW OF BOOKS at