The story of the first American saint is told well in this moving historical drama about an Italian nun who traveled to the U.S. to serve immigrant children, overcoming patriarchal and racial bias.
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Francesa Cabrini is probably not a household name for most — not even in the very Roman Catholic house I grew up in. She was an Italian nun who immigrated to the United States in 1889 to help the immigrants pouring into the country, often living in appalling conditions with thousands of orphaned children in the greater New York City area alone.
It was the first major Christian mission led entirely by women. Eventually there would be orphanages, hospitals and schools all over the country — and indeed the world — bearing her name. She was venerated in 1946, the first American citizen to be so elevated, and today Mother Cabrini is regarded as the patron saint of immigrants.
Her story is well told in “Cabrini,” a gripping historical drama that focuses on her early years in America. Played with great conviction by Cristiana Dell'Anna, she is portrayed as a woman of incredibly strong will, even stubbornness bordering on egotism, in the traditional ‘great man/woman’ biopic style.
It’s directed by Alejandro Monteverde, best known for last year’s surprise hit “Sound of Freedom,” which generated controversy due to its adjacency to QAnon nonsense. He co-wrote the screenplay with Rod Barr, also his partner on “Sound.” Both that and this film are distributed by Angel Studios, and it would probably be fair to describe “Cabrini” as faith-based filmmaking.
Whatever tradition or inspiration it sprung from, it’s a handsome film with terrific production values. It really summons up an authentic vision of late 19th-century New York City, not just the nascent skyscrapers of Manhattan’s Upper West Side but the venal depravity of Five Points on the southern end of the island, set a few decades after the time in “Gangs of New York.”
It’s a terrifying hellscape of mud, rats, disease and crime, into which Mother Cabrini and five other nuns traipse naively clad in their long black garments, carrying nothing with them but a few suitcases and an insurmountable will.
After starting a successful orphanage in Codogno, Italy, Cabrini appeals to the the Pope (Giancarlo Giannini) to lead a mission to China. At first she is put off by his underlings, but as will become her practice, Cabrini simply refuses to be ignored, stepping over decorum as need be to appeal to the man in charge. He grants her permission but advises her to “Go West, not East.”
A running theme of the film is her having to assault bastions of discrimination: the patriarchy (literally) of the Catholic church, and the deep hatred of Italians in America. It’s jarring to be reminded that just over a century ago, when people used epithets against the tidal wave of brown ‘Latin’ immigrants, they meant those of Mediterranean stock.
Two more powerful male figures emerge to block Cabrini’s work. The first is Archbishop Corrigan (David Morse), an Irish-American who perhaps harbors some nativist bias against the Italians, but is animated mostly by the desire not to rock the boat of New York’s powerful monied interests. His heart knows Mother Cabrini is doing the Lord’s work, but his inner politician is afeared of the threat she poses to the order.
The other is the Mayor of New York, unnamed by likely a stand-in for Hugh J. Grant. Played by John Lithgow in full wink-and-a-snarl mode, he’s an undisguised bigot who speaks of the Italians as second-class humans. He’s willing to accept their patronage and their votes, so long as they stay in their place in Five Points and don’t sully the city’s reputation as a beacon of affluence.
Starting with a rickety old house in Five Points, Mother Cabrini and her nuns begin gathering together a small army of orphaned children, in many cases from the sewers under the streets that act as a dank underworld.
Forbidden by the Archbishop from soliciting donations from non-Italians, she must find a variety of ways to fund their activities. Among them is appealing to a great Italian opera singer (Rolando Villazón) to play a benefit, though he is initially opposed to anything to do with the Church, with some read-between-the-lines motivations.
She also goes to the press, and a New York Times front-page story about immigrant children living no better than rats raises awareness and donations. They add a larger estate up-river to their portfolio, though it has no running water and Cabrini and her nuns must personally dig to find a well.
Cabrini was plagued by ill health all her life, due in part to nearly drowning in a pond as a girl. A helpful doctor (Patch Darragh) informs her she has no more than two years to live given her weakened lungs, but that only provides urgency to her drive to establish an “empire of hope.”
When she presumes to create a major hospital right in the middle of the posh portion of Manhattan, the disregard Cabrini has experienced turns into outright hostility — even violence.
Federico Ielapi plays Paolo, an early young recruit to the orphanage whose personal journey is filled with heaping amounts of joy and tragedy. Romana Maggiora Vergano has a key role as Vittoria, a prostitute who gives early aid to Cabrini and suffers cruelly for it, and eventually becomes one of her great supporters.
I admit when I first saw that “Cabrini” is 140 minutes, I worried it would be an overlong affair with an indulgent lack of editing, which is too frequently the case these days. But it moves along at a good pace, each section compelling and engaging.
It’s also about 60/40 percent in Italian versus English, which might prove an impediment to some but for me only added a deeper flavor to the stock of a story about the often fractious blending of immigrants.
“Cabrini” is a first-rate look at not just a difficult time in American history many would rather forget happened, but at an incredible figure who seemed to regard every challenge and foe as another reason to keep striving. Mother Cabrini literally changed the world, and this movie does proud justice to that legacy.