I don’t know how many people have gone out to see Spike Lee’s new movie “Miracle at St. Anna,” which bombed miserably at the weekend box office, but there is a controversy brewing in Italy. According to U.K.’s Times Online, Italian partisan organizations are to stage protests tomorrow at the Italian premiere of the film, which they say is full of lies, and insults the memory of the Italian Resistance during the Second World War.
Some have said that the film is very controversial. It is being shown first at Viareggio on the Tuscan coast, close to the village of Sant’ Anna di Stazzema in the Apennine hills above, where 560 civilians — including women and children — were murdered in cold blood in August 1944 by Nazi SS troops as they retreated northwards in the face of the Allied advance.
The movie, which highlights the role of African-American soldiers in the war, suggests that anti-Fascist partisans indirectly caused the atrocity by first taking refuge in the village and then abandoning the villagers to their fate. It even shows a partisan named Rodolfo collaborating with the Nazis. This runs directly counter to the accepted Italian version of events, which is that the slaughter was not a reprisal but an unprovoked act of brutality and that the hunt for partisans was a pretext.
The movie also questions one of the founding myths of Italy’s postwar democracy, which holds that the help the partisans gave to the Allies regained Italy the honour it had lost under Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator, by allying itself with Hitler and Nazi Germany. No doubt this has ruffled many feathers in Italy and I suspect the same for Italian-Americans as well.
James McBride, the black American Second World War veteran who wrote the novel on which Mr Lee’s film is based, said: “I am very sorry if I have offended the partisans. I have enormous respect for them. As a black American, I understand what it’s like for someone to tell your history, and they are not you.” He added: “But unfortunately, the history of World War II here in Italy is ours as well, and this was the best I could do … it is after all a work of fiction, not a history book.”
Spike Lee was also unrepentant, saying: “I am not apologizing for anything.” He told Italians that there was clearly “a lot about your history you have yet to come to grips with … This film is our interpretation, and I stand behind it.” Isn’t Spike Lee the same person who came down on Clint Eastwood about his movies “Letters from Iwo Jima” and “Flags of Our Fathers?”
According to Times Online, Lee said that the film, which follows the fate of four black GIs, was intended “to restore the voice of black soldiers who fought in the war.” He said that “not all Italians admired the partisans”, many of whom had fled to the mountains and left civilians to face the Nazis. “I have not invented anything,” he declared. The partisans in Italy feel that the film was a false reconstruction and a travesty of history and should not be tolerated.
The film has so far been given a mixed reception in the US, where in its first week it took only $3.5 million at the box office. Six former SS officers were sentenced to life in absentia three years ago for the Sant’ Anna atrocity. The prosecutions followed the discovery by a journalist in 1994 of a cabinet in the Rome military archives — dubbed “the cabinet of shame” — which contained evidence of war crimes hushed up by successive postwar Italian governments in order not to revive hostility towards Germany, by then a democratic member of the EU and NATO.
Well, I haven’t seen the movie, but for those of you who have, any thoughts?
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