Italian War Veterans Denounce ‘Insulting’ Spike Lee Film

Richard Owen, Times (London), Sept. 30, 2008

Italian partisan organisations are to stage protests tomorrow at the Italian premiere of Spike Lee’s film Miracle at St. Anna, which they say is full of lies, and insults the memory of the Italian Resistance during the Second World War.

The controversial film, already released in the United States, will be running in Italian cinemas from Friday. But 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.

Miracle at St. Anna, 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.

It 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.

At a press screening in Rome, 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 apologising 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.”

Mr 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.

However Giovanni Cipollini, the deputy head of the partisans’ association Anpi, at the town of Pietrasanta in Tuscany, said that the film was a “false reconstruction” and a “travesty of history”. Didala Gherarducci, the secretary of Anpi at Viareggio, said that her husband had died in the massacre, and that she had written to Mr Lee to tell him that his “false” version of events “weighs on my heart like a stone”.

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. Mr Lee said that he had made it to counteract war films such as Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers, in which black US troops hardly figured.

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.

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