Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

Miracle at St. Anna

Release Date: 9-26-08 (theaters)
Runtime: 160 min.
Period: 1983 New York, 1944 Tuscany, Italy
Costume Designer: Carlo Poggioli

I went to see this movie knowing absolutely nothing about it, other than that Spike Lee directed it.  I am a big fan of Mr. Lee’s work, and was excited to see his latest oeuvre, noting that it was a period piece.

That said, this is NOT a movie that is all about the costumes – a notion that, to me, makes the costumes even more interesting.  This is a film that needs subtle expression, gentle guiding of the audience to understand how the director wants you to feel about the characters.  In the end, the costumes in this film succeed in telling the story, and in informing the audience about the characters who wear them.

The movie opens in 1983, New York City.  An aging postal worker shoots a customer at point blank range after he buys a stamp.  The police raid the shooter’s house, and find a valuable Italian marble head in a Macy’s shopping bag.  The mystery begins: who is the shooter, why did he shoot the stamp-buyer, and what’s with the head?

The movie flashes back to tell the story of four men of the all-black 92nd Infantry (aka “Buffalo Soldiers”) in WWII Italy.  Through a series of (intentional) miscommunications, the regimen is set up for failure while crossing the Serchio River in Tuscany.  Only our four boys make it across the river alive, and they hide in a small nearby village, awaiting orders from an indifferent chain of command.

They are aided in the village by a sometimes-English-speaking local beauty named Renata.  Along the way, they rescue an injured urchin of a child named Angelo.  Angelo seems to have mystic powers, and the four soldiers hide him with Renata’s family to aid in his recuperation.   Meanwhile, the Germans are planning to surround the city and annihilate its citizens, like they did in a neighboring village, and the planning/hiding out/war games begin.

This movie is as much a criticism of the historical omission of black soldiers in WWII movies, as it is a fantasy war film with supernatural elements.  The film is problematic in that it complains about the pre-existing condition, and invents a solution that is so far-flung as to not be plausible.  Lee defeats himself here in his own quest for the truth in history, in his quest to represent and fully flesh-out of the stories of these soldiers, to make their history real and lasting.  The film definitely has problems, but it is certainly worth watching.  See if you agree with me.

As it is a war story, this movie uses a lot of uniforms.  You have four guys in the same regimen, and they all have a different “look”.  Their uniforms are slightly different, they wear the pieces differently, and the actors are of varying body types.  If you saw these individuals in silhouette behind a curtain, you could easily identify the different characters.  This is important, because they really don’t change clothes throughout the movie, and their silhouette gives them identity.  The costume designer, Italian Carlo Poggioli, was, for a long time, the right-hand-man to costume legend Gabriella Pescucci, and he has learned some valuable lessons along the way.  When the characters can’t change costume, layer the pieces and create silhouettes that set them apart from one another.  Check, and bravo!

With regard to the villagers and American soldiers, everything on screen has been aged to within an inch of its life, giving the movie a smelly, real sense of desperate times.  The aging and the on-set maintenance of the costumes is superb.  These guys are the consistently sweaty, dirty, overwhelmed, swarthy, frazzled-looking GIs we need them to be in order to keep the tension in the scenes alive.  Kudos to the on-set costumers for this film; I am sure they had their hands full, and everything looks very good.

The 92nd Infantry, the “Buffalo Soldiers”, have perhaps the coolest regiment patch in the history of the military.  The patch figures prominently in the poster for the movie, and is one that is (agreeing with Mr. Lee’s assessment that black soldiers have not been adequately represented in film) rarely seen on screen.  I can only guess that the costume department would have had to make the patches from scratch, in order to get the volume that they needed for the big river ambush scene, and for the scenes at the 92nd headquarters.

The German soldiers’ costumes are impeccable in their presentation, and Lee lovingly pays homage to their beautiful, if not blood-curdlingly, stark design.  The camera caresses the fabric, the buttons, the ribbons, gliding over the actors in extreme close-up, so close that you can see the individual stitches in the patches.  The accompanying music is heavy-handed in a Wagnerian way, warning us of some kind of (unexpected?) impending doom.

A side note about the SS uniforms, though – we know that Nazis in film are always going to be the bad guys, and that (in practice) their political views were horrifying, and that they killed millions of innocent people.  However, one cannot argue that their uniforms were ugly.  Scary: yes, but ugly: not so much.  In fact, the SS uniforms are a pretty magnificent example of costume design, and were first designed by SS-Oberführer Prof. Dr. Karl Diebitsch and Walter Heck, a graphic designer.  Look closely at the cut of the uniforms – the waist of the jacket is intentionally a smidge high, to make the wearer’s legs look longer, and to slim a bier-belly, perhaps?  The colors are stark and sharp: grey, black, white, silver, touches of red.  These designers were not messing around; the results are beautiful.  During the war, the uniforms were made by Hugo Boss, if that tells you anything about their quality and tailoring (verification: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B00E4DF153FF936A2575BC0A961958260 ), and it is worth mentioning all of this as Lee focuses on the SS uniforms, quite literally, throughout the film.

The Italian villagers are a sincerely distraught bunch.  Their costumes look like many other costumes in modern films we have seen, representing this era in Europe (Life is Beautiful, The Pianist, Zwartboek, etc.).  This is to say that the costumes are accurate, appropriate, and meet our expectations for what is reasonable in these characters’ situations.  The villagers have a rather sepia-toned vibe to them, which collides sweetly with the dirty, dingy olive drabs of the four U.S. soldiers in their cobblestone midst.  In contrast, the stark, sleek design of the SS uniforms could not be more different from the villagers’ earthy, slouchy, unsophisticated garb.

**Spoiler – all of the Tuscan villagers die bloody deaths in the end (principals and background), so you know that the costume department had to manufacture, fit, and age many, many multiples of these costumes.  With that in mind, you have to give them credit for the massive amount of construction and finishing that went into these costumes.  Well done!  **

The first time we meet the little boy, Angelo, he appears hidden (and walking) in a haystack costume.  The haystack disguise is notable because it is difficult to imagine why it existed as such (a hollow, child-sized haystack costume?  Just lying around by the barn?).  The boy is on the run, having escaped a massacre in his village, and he is searching for his imaginary (maybe?) friend.  Has the boy built the haystack disguise himself?  This is not explained in the film, and by the time the pieces are put together as to how the boy got there in the first place, we have long-forgotten the haystack. But still, it begs the question.  Perhaps this is yet another mystery regarding this boy with seemingly mystical powers.

There is one additional villager that needs discussion, and that is the lovely Renata.  She is a very becoming woman, with a nice figure and pretty face.  Her costumes pull no punches about her situation.  She has few garments, and while they are clean, they are distressed and show subtle signs of age and wear.  She wears mostly dresses and sweaters, or skirts with sweaters, and no bra.  No bra?  I don’t know exactly how accurate that is, but it becomes a story point, so accuracy be damned.  The anachronism is not as important here as the story point.  Her hair and makeup, however, fail the look of this character.  I hate when this happens, because when hair, makeup and costume work together, it is breathtaking.  However, in this case, the actress’ hair (shaggy, long, possibly with extensions and maybe even highlights) looks like it was ripped from a print-ad in last month’s Glamour magazine;  her dewy makeup and smoky eyes are way more 2008 than 1944.  Sad, sad, sad.  It could have been a beautiful thing when she exits the love-shack in the mint-green dress, reeking of her tryst with Bishop.  But instead, the needle was ripped off the record for me at the sight of her hair and makeup.  The mint green dress is exquisite in fabric and construction – the piecing and the fit of it is perfect – but I couldn’t get past the disparity in the hair and makeup as it affected the overall look.

The ending of this film is curious.  It seems like Lee wanted a bookend on his war movie – like a Saving Private Ryan-style redemption vibe – but for me, it felt more like the ending of Contact.  It’s an all-white-costumes, Nassau, Bahamas ending.  I felt like the big Trinidadian dude Geoffrey Holder from the 7Up commercials in the 1980s was going to walk up to the camera and say, “The Un-Cola!  Ah hahahahah,” That’s how out-of-context this ending was.  With an all-white-costume ending on a bright white sand beach, it makes you wonder, “Did this guy die or something?  Why is he wearing white?  Did someone give him white clothing to wear at the airport?”  And while I realize that it is all about Lee’s vision in this end-sequence, and that it is all about the character’s redemption, it seems, again (like the SS-Wagnerian music) quite heavy-handed.  The costumes are gorgeous and exquisitely tailored – everyone looks really sharp in their white ensembles.  However, the reason behind the all-white-ending, the Spike-Lee-reason-behind-it, is what I think is a clunker.  The costume department did their job beautifully – the error in my opinion is Mr. Lee’s, and I think that the distinction needs to be made.

An impressive thing about this film is its lengthy end-credits roll.  It must have gone on for a good seven or eight minutes.  The theater was completely empty by the time it listed every oboe player in the orchestra, but it was nice to see the recognition and respect given to every single individual who worked on the film.  The costume crew was, understandably, large, but not as large as I would have expected.  They all deserve a big pat on the back for their efforts – the costumes look great.

In summary, I think that Miracle at St. Anna is a very interesting example of a period film that is not all about the costumes.  Carlo Poggioli and his crew have done very good, subtle work.  I just wish they had been supported by the other departments on the film in a manner that befit their effort.

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