Cabrini celebrates human dignity and solidarity; the saint remains an enigma

SDG Original source: The Catholic Spirit

What kind of world do we want, and what will we do to achieve it? Those are the questions with which Alejandro Monteverdi’s Cabrini leaves us at the end of its 140 minutes. The questions land harder after the story we’ve seen.

The first time we see the face of Cristiana Dell’anna as Francesca Saverio Cabrini — Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, as she’s best known in the English-speaking world — she is donning her coif and wimple before a mirror, her expression a fragile mask of resolve belying the violent coughing fit from which she has just recovered. This act of vesting, it becomes clear, is a kind of gearing up for battle. It is spiritual warfare, of course, but the battlefield is everywhere, both inside and outside the Church. The enemy’s assets include sexism, anti-Italian bigotry, and both clericalism and anti-clericalism, as well as extremes of desperate poverty and privileged wealth side by side, never the twain meeting.

Repeatedly Mother Cabrini is told to “stay where you belong” or scolded for “wandering into rooms where you don’t belong.” In a flashback to a key childhood incident — a near-fatal drowning that left her with compromised lungs and a lifelong fear of water — we hear a doctor declaring that “her bed will be her life — that is where she belongs.”

Today Saint Frances Cabrini is celebrated as a pioneer: the first U.S. citizen to become a canonized saint, the first Catholic woman to lead an overseas mission, and the trailblazing founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which runs charitable institutions the world over. Yet Cabrini emphasizes that none of it would have happened had Mother Cabrini been content to remain in spaces deemed appropriate for her by the powerful men around her. Opening on March 8, International Women’s Day, Cabrini evokes the much-misattributed remark of American historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich that “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

As single-minded as its protagonist, Cabrini drives home in every scene its themes of human dignity — particularly the dignity of women and marginalized groups, including immigrants and the poor — and solidarity in the face of prejudice and social injustice.

A prologue, set in New York in 1889, establishes the harsh reality that will confront Mother Cabrini and her six sisters upon their arrival later that year. A young boy we come to know as Paolo (Federico Ielapi) trots desperately through the streets of the Five Points neighborhood pushing a wheelbarrow containing his dying mother to a hospital. In the hospital his cries for help are ignored by uncomprehending staff, and a blue-frocked police officer roughly shows him the door.

A small detail twists the knife: Paolo has been turned away from Mount Carmel Hospital — a Catholic institution. The police officer and most of the staff are probably Irish American, like New York Archbishop Michael Corrigan (David Morse), who initially wants to send the sisters packing back to Italy. The problems of the impoverished Italians of Five Points are by and large not the concern even of their fellow New York Catholics.

Like Monteverde’s last film, the controversial human-trafficking drama Sound of Freedom, Cabrini is an Angel Studios production cowritten by Rod Barr and Monteverde, lensed by Spanish cinematographer Gorka Gómez Andreu, and edited by F. Brian Scofield. Monteverde’s gently roving, classically precise camera movements and Gómez Andreu’s expertly illuminated, luminous cinematography make every shot count; even night scenes (often murky in digital cinematography) are gratifyingly lucid, and Carlos Lagunas’s extraordinary production design is never wasted.

As single-minded as its protagonist, Cabrini drives home in every scene its themes of human dignity — particularly the dignity of women and marginalized groups, including immigrants and the poor — and solidarity in the face of prejudice and social injustice. “At the hour of our death,” the saint declares in a key speech, “we will all be asked one question: What did we do for the poor? The sick? The homeless? Those stripped of dignity?” These themes remain as pressing in 2024 as they were in 1894.

This relentless focus makes the film more effective as hagiography (a word with unjust pejorative associations) than as character drama. Barr’s screenplay is more interested in celebrating what Mother Cabrini accomplished and the obstacles she overcame than in exploring what kind of person undertakes such challenges or what moves them to do it. Mother Cabrini’s struggles are almost exclusively external; what access we have to the enigma of her interiority is mediated almost entirely through Dell’anna’s subtle, thoughtful acting choices.

The relative absence of religious praxis and even religious language is an oddity. When Mother Cabrini tells her sisters that, without the support of men, “we must trust even more in ourselves,” she might have added trust in their order’s namesake, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but she doesn’t. When she later says, “I can do all things…” she pauses long enough to generate real suspense about whether she will finish the Pauline quotation, which is also the motto for the institution: “…through him who strengthens me” (cf. Philippians 4:13). Theologically, my favorite moment is a creative metaphor at Mother Cabrini’s lowest point suggesting God effectively stooping down and lifting her up from the temptation to give up.

Giancarlo Giannini deepens the character of Pope Leo XIII with sensitive warmth, while John Lithgow embraces the villainy of a fictional New York mayor. Other fictional characters include a prostitute played by Romana Maggiora Vergano who improbably becomes Mother Cabrini’s closest confidante (the other sisters are little more than names) a New York Times reporter (Jeremy Bobb) who became an important ally, and an initially hostile opera singer (Rolando Villazón). Well-acted and well mounted, Cabrini is a worthwhile tribute to a great woman and the causes she championed. I wish it went a little deeper.

Biography, Race, Diversity, Prejudice, Civil Rights, Religious Themes, Saints & Beati


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