If Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna were a symphony, you'd think, three sublime movements, a fourth that's turgid, and what's with the wacky coda?
Adapted by James McBride from his best-seller, Miracle is, by turns, a dazzling, dim, lucid, confounding, absorbing, tedious, silly, profound, bloody and - 160 minutes and almost as many subplots later - bracing account of four African American infantrymen separated from their Buffalo Soldiers unit in Tuscany during World War II.
The film opens in 1983 as one of the soldiers, Hector (Laz Alonso), a post office clerk, shoots a customer at point-blank range, then flashes back to his World War II tour of duty, and concludes in 1984 on what would appear to be Fantasy Island.
Even at its most indulgent, Lee's film powerfully summons the courage of black soldiers in the face of discouraging racism. Though denigrated and infantilized by their white commanding officers, the Buffalo Soldiers nonetheless defended the country that did not always defend their so-called freedoms.
Lee can express more with a sweeping camera movement or an agitated edit than almost any other filmmaker working. One of the pleasures of Miracle is seeing a most imagistic filmmaker thinking visually. It doesn't hurt that cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Lee's collaborator on several films, including Inside Man, communicates the texture and temperature of every marshy riverbank, stucco wall, marbled floor, and trembling trigger finger.
But man, oh, man, much of the dialogue is so heavy, and heavy-handed, that you can see fine actors such as Derek Luke and Michael Ealy buckle under the weight. Clearly, Lee fell in love with McBride's words and couldn't bear to cut them, even when the visuals made those words redundant.
Lee's principal theme is to celebrate the men of color who, despite their experiences of stone racism, fought and died for their country. And in this film with good and bad Germans, saintly and sinister Italians, humanistic and sadistic Americans, the subsidiary theme is: See the person, not the nationality.
Still, it's more challenging for the 92d Regiment than for their white brothers slogging across the Serchio River in the waning days of 1944. As they march, the 92d can hear Axis Sally, mouthpiece of German propaganda, spewing those fears that the Buffalo Soldiers swallow back hard: Why die for a country who treats them like slaves?
The question resonates with two of the four soldiers who become detached from their unit. Sgt. Stamps (Luke) is willing to fight for an imperfect America in order to create a more perfect one; Sgt. Cummings (Ealy) is uneasily resigned to the fact that in this war, blacks are cannon fodder. Meanwhile, perhaps in reference to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, the manchild called Train (Omar Benson Miller) rubs his talisman, a white marble bust of Spring liberated from a Florentine bridge, to render himself invisible, and thus invincible to bullets.
Train's adoption of a mute Italian urchin - think Dondi - with a painful secret, and the quartet's painless integration into a small Tuscan village make them feel more at home than when they are home.
No sooner does he establish their stories than Lee pulls back to tell a larger story of brotherhood and betrayal involving Italian partisans and Fascists. The result is diffuse and often confusing and - a warning to the weak-stomached - shockingly, but not gratuitously, violent.
Still, at times, as when our quartet seeks refreshment on a sultry day in the American South, Lee shows that he does what he does better than almost anyone.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or email@example.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl