Cabrini (Angel Studios, PG-13)

Critics often accuse biopics of presenting a hagiography of a complex human being whose flaws were conveniently omitted from the picture, but in the case of Cabrini the term “hagiography” (the story of the life of a saint) is entirely appropriate. That’s because its subject, Frances Xavier Cabrini, MSC, was the first American citizen to be canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

The story of Cabrini is grounded in fact: Maria Francesca Cabrini (Mina Severino as a child, Christiana Dell’Anna as an adult) was born in 1850 in what was then the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venice in the Austrian Empire (now the province of Lodi in the Lombardy region of Italy). She suffered from ill health her entire life but excelled in her studies and earned a teaching certificate from a school run by the Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. After being turned down by several religious orders due to her poor health, she founded the order of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, whose work focused on teaching and caring for orphans.

In 1889 Cabrini and a group of Sisters arrived in New York City with the charge, from none other than Pope Leo XIII himself (Giancarlo Giannini) to establish a mission to help the impoverished immigrants, many of them Italian, of the city. There weren’t a lot of public services available at the time, and many people lived in appalling, unhealthy conditions, facts portrayed with great realism in Cabrini (her first experience of New York City is the Five Points neighborhood, which you may remember from Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York).

Cabrini and her band of sisters encounter setback after setback, some of which stemmed from the annoyance of Church officials like Archbishop Michael Corrigan (David Morse) that a woman would dare to challenge their authority. There’s also a fictional mayor of New York (John Lithgow) who despises the Italian immigrants with whom Cabrini works, although he does pay the backhanded compliment that she “would have made an excellent man” (to which she replies “Men could never do what we do.”). While these encounters are dramatic and serve to underline Cabrini’s indomitable spirit, there are far too many of them, making Cabrini something of an endurance contest at 2 hours and 22 minutes.

Of course, if you think of Cabrini as an epic celebrating the power of religious faith then maybe it’s just the right length, with those who live within that faith finding new meaning in each twist and turn of the story. For the record, I think a lot of movies are too long, particularly those of the MCU franchise, but what is annoying and unnecessary to me may well be a splendid feast to someone more attuned to the vibe of those movies, which just goes to show that not all movies are for everyone.

Two things about Cabrini make it worth seeing: the performance of Christiana Dell’Anna as the title character, and the film’s look and feel as created by cinematographer Gorka Gómez Andreu, production designer Carlos Lagunas, costume designer Alisha Silverstein, and art directors Roberto Caruso and C.J. Simpson. For a movie in which much of the action takes place in the slums, Cabrini is surprisingly beautiful, making great use of dramatic lighting and including carefully composed scenes modeled on contemporary photographs by Jacob Riis of How the Other Half Lives fame.

On the down side, Cabrini is much too long and repetitive (for which I will blame the screenplay by Monteverde and Rod Barr), completely lacks subtlety when portraying the prejudices faced by many new immigrants, and is often frankly manipulative of the audience.* Of course, emotional manipulation is a standard technique in the filmmakers toolkit (and I’m speaking as a willing viewer of more sports melodramas than I’d care to enumerate, so I’m living in a glass house and not inclined to throw stones at people who enjoy a different brand of filmic manipulation than do I), so how you feel about these particular manipulations may depend more on what you want from this film than on what it is trying to do to you.

Cabrini is a difficult film to review because while it uses the standard techniques of Hollywood movie-making, it seems to have a different goal in mind that your standard multiplex fare. That’s probably why reviews have been all over the place, because evaluating how well or poorly a film succeeds requires having some idea in your mind of what the film meant to do. In the case of Cabrini, it’s trying to do several things at once, and it hits some marks better than others, but above all it’s the kind of film where a potential viewer should be asking not “is it any good?” but “is it right for me?” | Sarah Boslaugh

Cabrini is available on VOD from Angel Studios.

*I would be remiss if I did not mention that Monteverde and Barr also teamed up for the 2023 Sound of Freedom. Make of that what you will.

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