An early draft of this review was originally published on March 28, 2024,
at Give Me Some Light on Substack, months before it appeared here.
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Cabrini is a rare and pleasant surprise — a movie from a religious production company that generally avoids cringe-worthy proselytizing and — even more impressively — gives evidence that the filmmakers prioritize beauty and strive to fill the big screen with enchanting images.

But best of all, in a season when “religious media” vigorously promotes fascism, a surge of Christian nationalism that could not be more antithetical to Jesus’ teachings, and the demonization of those with brown and black skin, Cabrini celebrates a truly inspiring saint — Frances Saverio Cabrini — whose mission was to affirm that America is made of immigrants, relies on immigrants, and should never abandon its mission of welcoming and celebrating immigrants.

Going into the film, I knew next to nothing about St. Frances Cabrini…

Cristiana Dell’Anna as St. Francee Saverio Cabrini. [Image from the Angel Studios trailer.]

… and I still don’t know nearly enough.

But I can say this: Her story is extraordinary — just the kind of narrative we need to restore hope for change in a darkening world. She survived childhood tuberculosis and other afflictions that should have ended her story early, kept alive perhaps by her stubborn determination to change the world — specifically the East. When the Pope re-directed her energies toward America, she embarked on myriad missions of compassion and grace, defying authorities of both church and state.

As Steven Greydanus, in his excellent review for Catholic Spirit, reminds us (or, for some, informs us):

Today St. 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.”

Unfortunately, a lot of critics are lining up to dismiss Cabrini outright — probably because director Alejandro Monteverde was responsible for last year’s appalling, fraudulent “social justice movie” fiasco Sound of Freedom, which gave QAnon conspiracy theorist and MAGA poster boy Jim Caviezel all kind of media attention and glorified a controversial and troubling figure who, thanks to the movie, was very quickly discredited. Despite the film’s apparent mission to fight sex trafficking, organizations involved in busting sex-trafficking operations around the world loudly protested, saying that the methods glorified in the movie were actually doing more harm than good.

So, no — I cannot blame anybody for steering clear of Cabrini, not when they’ve been so recently burned.

The U.S.A.’ s promise to immigrants, refugees, and other needy travelers is at the heart of Cabrini’s call. [Image from the Angel Studios trailer.]

But I think we need to acknowledge, respect, and applaud the movie’s remarkable strengths.

Cabrini an old-fashioned sort of big-screen tribute to a saintly historical figure, a kind of movie we rarely see anymore. (I’m reminded of A Man for All Seasons, although this screenplay, for all of its noble intentions and virtuous ideals, has nothing on that film’s artful banter or sophisticated sparring matches between rhetoricians.) Rob Barr’s screenplay is thin on characterization and heavy-handed with metaphor. (How many times must we see the young Cabrini slowly sinking into a watery abyss of despair?) It’s about as subtle as an after-school special about bullying written to teach teens a lesson. And Monteverde never misses a cue for his hero to fiercely throw down quotable feminist slogans against her enemies or to set her jaw and fight back whenever she’s told that she’s meddling in territories where a woman “doesn’t belong.”

One thing that annoys me all the way through is that, even in crowded scenes, only the Most Important characters speak — and I use the word “characters” reluctantly. Sister Cabrini has only one or two distinguishing characteristics throughout, despite Dell’Anna’s assertive embodiment of her stubborn conviction. Her “tuberculosis cough” may inspire our concern, but it doesn’t deepen our understanding of her character. Cabrini’s company of nuns follow her around like a flock of geese, saying nothing at all. It’s almost as if they’ve been deliberately silenced to save the production money. They’re rarely more than blank drones carrying out her instructions. Isn’t it kind of disingenuous, in a movie that’s supposed to champion the agency and genius of women, to make so many female characters seem so mindless, serving only as an aesthetic backdrop that accentuates the one whose name is in lights? Almost everything and everyone exist as accents or contrast, keeping our focus on the haloed saint.

John Lithgow plays a villainous mayor, reminding us American governors who respond to immigrants and refugees with cruelty and hatred. [Image from the Angel Studios trailer.]

But it’s easy to forgive the shallowness, obviousness, and grandstanding when we’re treated to such impressive historic recreations of New York, evidence of the talents of production designer Carlos Lagunas and cinematographer Gorka Gómez Andreu. Thanks to them, you can smell the slums of New York’s hellish Five Points neighborhood, which the cops avoid, and where pimps and robbers and murderers rule. You can feel the chill of the swirling fog that engulfs the panoramic countryside just beyond the crowded cityscapes. (I remember thinking that this looks like the New York of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, an enchanted New York story that was spectacularly squandered in Akiva Goldsman’s terrible 2014 adaptation.) Lens flares and beacons are everywhere, going off like fireworks in cathedrals; like rays of prophecy in halls of government; like visitations of the Holy Spirit in dilapidated structures, wherein Cabrini envisions new institutions that serve the poor; like infusions of courage within cramped spaces where Cabrini is confronted by her male antagonists. They’re often accompanied by a symphonic score that demands our hearts be moved. Monteverde sets his film in oceans of classical music, seemingly inspired by Terrence Malick techniques in The New World, The Tree of Life, and A Hidden Life.

And Gómez Andreu’s camera is in love with the clenched jaw and burning eyes of his leading actress: Cristiana Dell’Anna, who, as the spirited Mother Francesca Cabrini, stares directly into the camera, seemingly incensed with all of us for allowing anti-immigrant agendas to advance here in 2024.

Reaching out in a place where “rats have it better than children.” [Image from the Angel Studios trailer.]

The film’s most nuanced performance comes from David Morse as an endearingly obstinate Archbishop of New York. The most quietly engaging turn comes from Patch Darragh as the tender-hearted Dr. Murphy, who gives Cabrini the vision for a great New York hospital. John Lithgow is here, chewing cigars and quaffing glasses of whiskey as the cartoonishly and buffoonishly terrible anti-Italian Mayor Gould of New York. And Jeremy Bobb makes a strong impression in just a few minutes’ screentime as a New York Times journalist who informs the world that “rats have it better than children” in the city Five Points neighborhood.

But perhaps my favorite turn in the film is the most complicated one. Giancarlo Giannini is a legendary Italian actor whose impressive credits span more than half a century of great cinema. Here he plays Pope Leo XII, whose initial resistance to Sister Cabrini’s appeals soften as he begins to see the folly in the patriarchal institution’s oppression of women. Whenever we see the pope turn to reckon with Cabrini’s challenges, the gravity of the character’s intellect and conscience is compelling. In a film that is simplistic on the page, Giannini and Morse are the actors who do so much more on the screen than what they’re given by their scripts.

Giancarlo Giannini as Pope Leo XII. [Image from the Angel Studios trailer.]

And yet, while the movie’s “Saint Good, World Horrible” dynamic isn’t going to challenge us toward any meaningful revelations, I cannot just shrug and brush this movie aside like so many of my colleagues. We cannot underestimate the fact that Cabrini is being promoted to American evangelicals and MAGA audiences with an emphasis on the glory of immigrants as the lifeblood of America. It sounds like a movie that Governors Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott would loudly expel from Florida and Texas cineplexes. It sounds like a movie that makes Trump’s vile rants about immigrants as “animals” and “vermin” and “not even human” sound like the satanic calls for cruelty that they really are.

What’s more, Cabrini rightly asserts as a fundamental of true Christianity that followers of Jesus are identified as those who serve the stranger and who welcome the immigrant. Monteverde does not hold back in making a joke of the Christian tradition’s counterproductive reliance on prejudicial patriarchal systems.

Italian orphans struggle to survive in New York’s Five Points neighborhood. [Image from the Angel Studios trailer.]

Overall, this movie seems far more likely to sensitize people to the cruelty of the GOP’s anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-democracy, anti-Christ agenda than to rally them towards it. (But then, Trump is out there vigorously selling Bibles to raise money for his legal defense, the very Scriptures that consistently denounce everything he says and does. I have to assume that MAGA-types are all but illiterate when it comes to what’s actually inside the Bible’s the Scriptures they claim as their foundation. If they found the Jesus of the Bible standing in their path, they’d crucify him again without blinking.)

I admit, I cringed and I groaned when Cabrini’s end credits were interrupted by a huge QR code, part of the movie’s marketing ploy, begging us to get our phones and “Pay It Forward.” (The vast cineplex theater I was in had exactly five moviegoers in it.) And I laughed when a timer appeared at the bottom of the screen like an apology for the fact that end credits are necessary at all, accompanied by a desperate appeal to “PLEASE” stay and listen to a cheesy end-credits song about being a light in the darkness.

Cabrini in City Hall, setting an example for all of us to demand that America practice what it preaches. [Image from the Angel Studios trailer.]

Still, I’ll take Cabrini any day over another Jim Ca-jeezus White Savior Propaganda film. Or another movie about how prayer wins football games. Or another one about evangelical college students should rise up against intellectuals and scientists and those who actually use the brains God gave them to investigate the world’s mysteries. Best of all, there’s no glimpse anywhere in these New York streets of either Kirk Cameron or Kevin Sorbo.

I think we should be glad Cabrini is out there. Angel Studios could do the world some good if it invested in more “religious” filmmaking of this variety, slowly steering the ship in the direction of inspiring artistry and away from preachy entertainment, and appealing to our conscience, and prioritizing the poor and the vulnerable, instead of aggravating our cultural polarization and reinforcing systemic corruption.

I keep wondering about the four other moviegoers who saw Cabrini with me. If they were fans of Sound of Freedom, I hope they found this sobering and substantial. If, like me, they walked in skeptical and perhaps even a little cynical, I can empathize, but I hope they came away encouraged.