Review – Cabrini

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Overview

Synopsis A prominent Catholic nun is dispatched to a poor Italian community in the U.S. to assist their struggling community amid prejudice and discrimination.

Length 2 hours, 25 minutes

Release Date March 8, 2024

 

Rating PG-13

Distribution Angel Studios

Directing Alejandro Monteverde

Writing Rod Barr

Composition Gene Back

Starring Cristiana Dell'Anna, David Morse, Romana Maggiora, Vergano, Federico Lelapi, Virginia Bocelli, Rolando Villazón, Giancarlo Giannini, John Lithgow

With International Women’s Day just around the corner, Angel Studios is set to release its newest film about how the faith of a great 20th-century woman impacted the Roman Catholic Church and American life! It tells the story of how one Italian nun became the focal point of an international charitable organization and came to be canonized as a saint.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Characters die on screen, with others being assaulted, beaten, and nearly killed. Characters are nearly shot in one scene, and there are some unsettling images.
Language/Crude Humor: Limited to none.
Drug/Alcohol References: Some casual drinking and smoking.
Sexual Content: Nothing sexual is depicted.
Spiritual Content: The film depicts the life of a Catholic saint who is deeply committed to Catholic life and beliefs.
Other Negative Content: Some potential issues with how the figure’s life is depicted.
Positive Content: Themes of justice, empowerment, and faith.

Review

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini has a special place in the hearts of American Catholics, as she holds the title of being the first American to be canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Between 1887 and 1917, Mother Cabrini led the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, an organization she founded, in creating charitable organizations, hospitals, and orphanages across North America and the world. Her name is among the most honored among contemporary Catholics, with dozens of parishes across the US bearing her name, as she remains the patron saint of immigrants.

It is not surprising then that Mother Cabrini is now the subject of a major motion picture. The newest film from The Chosen creators Angel Studios is a modest biopic about her life, depicting the events following the foundation of the Missionary Sisters through her building Columbus Hospital in New York City. While it has some eccentricities, it is easily one of the strongest projects the company has produced to date.

As Cabrini starts, we’re given a view of life in New York City in the late 1880s, with Italian immigrants suffering tremendously from poverty, discrimination, and hostility from the dominant populations who view the immigrants as a problem that needs to be minimized. Mother Cabrini, an Italian nun, is anxious to extend the work her sisters have been doing in Lombardy to China, but after facing multiple rejections from the Vatican, she decides to seek an audience with them. Pope Leo XIII instead instructs her to move her mission to America to help deal with the problems facing Immigrant Catholics. Agreeing to do so, she sets forth and faces rampant opposition from the local Irish-Catholic Archbishop and local politicians who view her as a disruptive woman. 

The movie is being released this year on International Women’s Day, a push that I initially expected was just a marketing gimmick to draw attention to a particularly important woman in the history of contemporary Catholicism. However, I was surprised to realize just how appropriate that release date was, as the movie is deeply driven by girl-power themes. The movie explicitly presents the life of Mother Cabrini through the lens of contemporary gender views, depicting the saintly nun as a fierce, defiant, and disruptive woman, who all but echoes the popular sentiment that “well-behaved women seldom make history.”

Cabrini’s creators are picking up on real history, namely that Mother Cabrini struggled to gain approval in the early years of her mission, and ran a highlighter over the juiciest bits that most appeal to modern audiences. As with most hagiography, there is a degree to which it comes off as shallow or melodramatic. The Archbishop and his colleagues are portrayed as soaringly sexist, racist, and elitist jerks who look down upon the rabble of disgusting immigrants, while Mother Cabrini’s worst traits are that she is merely too ambitious and cares too much.  

Certainly, the film does have a point, as late 19th century America was not the most welcoming place for immigrants. Mother Cabrini’s incredible life did draw from a remarkable well of empathy for the poor and downtrodden, and she did more in her time to address these issues than many of the most powerful people alive. That legacy has ramifications well into the present, as the U.S. and Europe continue to struggle with immigration issues and the ethics of how to grapple with them.

The only problem this creates is that it functionally downplays Mother Cabrini’s Christianity in favor of her feminism. As the Pope points out rightly in one scene, it is hard to tell where Mother Cabrini’s faith ends and her ambition begins. She ends up having to spend half the movie battling the patriarchal authority of her church, which wants to shut her operations down. The movie is highly vindicating of her perspective, replacing moral challenges against her character as a saint with strictly political and social ones that do not challenge her virtues. 

The movie spends less time commenting on how her Catholicism fits into her thought processes, which would be fascinating given the Roman church’s historic focus on poverty relief, human dignity, and social justice, than it does offering commentary on her gender. These ideas are there, as she frequently makes moral appeals to her male colleagues about the horrific conditions that her fellow immigrants are living under, but they’re intercut with one-liners and speeches about the power of women and the motivations of her oppressors. 

I don’t think Angel Studios made serious misjudgments in the creation of this film, and it is easy to understand why they would want to lean into the girl-power aspect of her fierce determination and willingness to defy authority for the sake of the greater good. There’s a great deal of catharsis later in the film in watching Mother Cabrini finally overcome the challenges she has been faced with and she looks over the city and views the world she wants to transform for the better. It is very fun to watch the bishops and senators squirm at the realization she is telling the truth. 

As with many of Angel Studios’ recent films like Sound of Freedom and The Shift, the film’s approach is merely messy. Cabrini is a beautifully well-produced period piece with some wonderful character writing and attention to detail. Many of its best scenes are just the ones where we get a glimpse into the simple challenges and joys of Italian-Catholic culture. It is easily this studio’s strongest showing to date as far as filmmaking goes.

Unfortunately, it is easy for screenwriters to let their lead character’s motivations fall by the wayside. It is hard to ignore the way the film paints such an essential historical figure, driven by her love of the church, with her faith being underappreciated.

Positives

+ Excellent production design
+ Solid performances
+ Topical themes

Negatives

- Some shallow writing in places
- Some modern commentary on an overtly Catholic story

The Bottom Line

Cabrini is a messy film but it captures the strength and perseverance of a great figure in Roman Catholic history, whose impact continues to be felt well into the 21st century.

 

7.3

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

1 Comments

  1. Dominic on April 8, 2024 at 11:20 am

    Hi Tyler.

    Thank you for this review. I am planning on watching Cabrini once it’s streaming.

    I also want to thank you for putting out movie reviews with a Catholic lens with consistency, something that is severely lacking today amongst Catholics who consume popular media, especially when popular media focuses on Catholicism and makes movies about the Faith and its laymen.

    Will you be reviewing movies that are almost the complete opposite of Cabrini in the form of Immaculate (2024) and The First Omen (2024)? I’ve made a list on horror/psychological thriller movies that feature nuns/sisters as the main character – nunsploitation – so said movies alongside Agnes, St. Maud and Consecration.

    I think it’s important to watch these movies and to review them because for far too long Catholics have let secular media dictate the emotions and narrative towards the religious life. They get away with it time and again where the directors, screenwriters, producers and actors all get rich off of exploiting, culturally appropriating and disrespecting Catholic women (in general) for their next job, entertainment and, ultimately for their career.

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