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The War According to Spike

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Miracle at St. Anna will doubtless be extolled by people who mistake Lee’s righteous clobbering for moral seriousness. But compare any scene to Rachid Bouchareb’s Indigènes (stupidly retitled Days of Glory in the U.S.), in which Algerians—French citizens—fight for a country that gives them no rights: The storytelling is measured, the encounters glancing but rich, the violence more devastating for its restraint. Compare the Taviani brothers’ sublime Night of the Shooting Stars, in which comedy bleeds into tragedy and the characters have so much stature you can’t believe they’re killing one another so absurdly. Lee’s climax is part punishing bloodbath, part florid religious uplift, and the coda is so maladroit it’s hard to believe anyone on-set could keep a straight face. (Does Lee believe this crap, or is he trying to outdo the end of Saving Private Ryan—which barely worked?)

When Lee made his studio caper picture, Inside Man, a lot of us praised his light touch, even his slickness, and I fear that might have been interpreted as a call for him to be more ingratiating to the mainstream audience and his Hollywood masters. It wasn’t. It was that he finally seemed to have enough confidence in his storytelling to keep his agenda below the surface. In movies like Miracle at St. Anna, the humanity can’t be force-fed or captured on a placard. It’s too evanescent. It’s only a miracle if it rises up out of the screen, as if by force of nature. It’s only a miracle if it looks easy.

Briefly: Choke, from Chuck Palahniuk’s typically overheated novel about a sex addict who blames his crazy mother, is the first movie chockablock with nude women I’ve ever fought to stay awake at. Sam Rockwell strips himself down to pure appetite and has a buoyant spirit. But the film sure doesn’t. It’s bizarrely flat—it has no affect. It’s like Palahniuk translated into Robotese … The New York Film Festival opens with Laurent Cantet’s The Class, in which a Paris high-school teacher, François (played by François Bégaudeau, who wrote a memoir about teaching), labors over the course of a year to engage his mostly poor, multiracial students. The class scenes were largely improvised and seem to unfold in real time—they go on and on. Yet they’re each a cliffhanger. Great teaching is presented as an exhausting series of negotiations, the meaning in the minutiae—sometimes in the smallest of exchanges. For most of the film, François is an inspiring figure; then something, for a variety of reasons, snaps, and he becomes piggish and irrational. He does bad. Yet we never entirely abandon him. The process has been so fraught. The Class is a true movie miracle: fragile yet indelible. (It opens commercially in December.)

Miracle at St. Anna
Directed by Spike Lee.
Touchstone Pictures. R.

Choke
Directed by Clark Gregg
Fox Searchlight. R.

The Class
Directed by Laurent Cantet
Sony Pictures Classics. Not Rated.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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