‘Cabrini’ Movie Review: A Life-Changing Biopic

Cristiana Dell’Anna stars as Mother Cabrini. Courtesy of Angel Studios

Mother Cabrini, one of the most powerful, influential and inspirational women who ever lived, has always been one about whom much is guessed and almost nothing is known. Now, with the meticulously researched and unavoidably mesmerizing film biography Cabrini, we get a sprawling work that fits together pieces of the jigsaw that was the life of the dirt-poor Italian immigrant who bucked unbelievable odds to become the first American saint in history, worshiped to this day as the Patron Saint of Immigrants. I’m neither Italian nor Catholic, but I was glued to this massive achievement with unwavering fascination, finding it thoroughly and emotionally captivating.

CABRINI ★★(3.5/4 stars)
Directed by: Alejandro Monteverde
Written by: Rod Barr
Starring: Cristiana Dell’Anna, Giancarlo Gianinni, David Morse, John Lithgow
Running time: 145 mins.

Between 1889 and 1910, more than two million Italian immigrants flooded the American borders. They were destitute, illiterate and spoke little or no English. Not since the Civil War had so much prejudice, fear, resentment and hatred been unleashed. One of the few people who came to their aid and tried to help them survive was a frail girl with tubercular lungs but strong determination named Francesca Cabrini. When she returned to Italy, she appealed to no higher authority than the Pope for permission to start a series of charities to help the desperately sick and needy—an “empire of hope” she hoped to begin in China. With the provision that she forget about the East and move to the slums of New York instead, Pope Leo XIII surprised everyone, including his disapproving team at the Vatican, and plunged Cabrini into her own quagmire of jealousy and distrust aimed at women in general and nuns in particular.

Undeterred, with only the bravery and resolve of five other inexperienced nuns to protect her, Cabrini led them into the cold, heartless alleys of New York, where they faced disease, starvation, poverty and unthinkable cruelties. From here, the film catalogs a chamber of epic horrors. The stark settings, the backbreaking toil, the filth and indignity these six women of God had to endure, the hostilities they were forced to overcome, are so dutifully recorded that I couldn’t take my eyes off the action. First they were befriended by a dubious priest and a prostitute named Vittoria. 

With little more than guts, Cabrini dedicated herself to winning over more converts concerned with prayers for a better life for children and the disenfranchised, persuading politicians, the clergy and the liberal press to write about the truths that plagued the city and the immigrants in it. The N.Y. Health Dept. was shamed into investigating the plight of children living beneath the cobblestones in makeshift sewers. In addition to the orphans, Cabrini took on the responsibility of saving a bankrupt hospital. Acquiring abandoned estates and turning them into functioning institutions that saved lives when no funds were available, she was something of a saint long before she was ordained as one.

The horrifying prejudices she faced daily are hard to take, watch, and even believe. But one feverish thing Cabrini does in addition to telling a darn good story is depict America as the same land of evil, violence and self-serving cruelty it always has been—and, as the headlines attest, still is today. Very few films depict America as the same Democratic bastion of freedom, equality and pride I was taught to love and respect in school. Cabrini, like so many other historic indictments, shows it for the shameful, complicated, not always admirable gumbo of political cross purposes it was and remains.  

A number of commendable merits contribute to why this film works so diligently—the sober, clear-eyed direction by gifted Alejandro Monteverde and the fact-based screenplay by Rod Barr, both repeating their chores on Sound of Freedom, the Christian-themed action epic with Jim Caviezel as a government agent dedicated to rescuing children victimized by sex traffickers that became one of 2023’s highest-grossing surprise hits. I also liked the burnished period cinematography and the cast of great supporting actors, including Giancarlo Gianinni as the Pope, David Morse as American archbishop Corrigan, and John Lithgow as the hostile mayor of New York. Worthy of special praise is the valiant centerpiece performance by Cristiana Dell’Anna as a Cabrini of uncommon understatement and gritty charisma. Mother Cabrini died at 67, is buried above the Hudson River, and canonized in the Vatican. At a time when movies exist in honor of the strangest oddballs everywhere, I can think of no one more worthy of a life-changing biopic. You can keep your Barbie. I’ll take Mother Cabrini.

Keep Your Barbie. I’ll Take Mother Cabrini.

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