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John AndersonMarch 08, 2024
(OSV News photo/Angel Studios)

Like many a solid New York Catholic, I was taken as a boy to see Mother Cabrini, under glass, at the St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Shrine in Upper Manhattan. The bodies of saints, my mother told me at the time, do not decompose. Ah, I thought, that explains it. My sense of dread was replaced by awe.

My sense of dread over the film “Cabrini”? It was replaced by respect, even joy, after encountering this less-than-exhaustive but elevating piece of biographical filmmaking about the immigrant Italian activist, healer and early Manhattan developer (of hospitals and orphanages)—the woman who became the first American saint. Mom may have been wrong, but she told a good story. So does “Cabrini.”

My apprehensions were twofold. The sad fact is, many films with a fervent religious message stress the message and fail to be good movies; “Cabrini,” while certainly a hagiography, is dramatically and cinematically sound and even, now and then, visually breathtaking. (The cinematographer is the Spaniard Gorka Gómez Andreu.) My other worry was the movie’s director and co-writer: Alejandro Monteverde of “Sound of Freedom,” the sensationalistic, QAnon-approved thriller and box-office smash of last summer. No one wants to argue against a movie demonizing child-trafficking, or glorifying the fight against it, but most viewers don’t look forward to being emotionally manipulated either. Would I be told that Mother Cabrini’s pro-Italian campaign in the Five Points slum of 1800s New York was being thwarted by a band of Soros-funded liberals kidnapping children and holding them in the basement of Lombardi’s pizza parlor on Spring Street? Anything can happen. None of this does.

But fear not: There is much to raise one’s ire and indignation in “Cabrini,” concentrating as it does on the sister’s fight against both church and state in trying to better the lives of the unfortunate—while she still has the time. As the screenplay by Monteverde and Rob Barr tells it, Cabrini, born in 1850, nearly drowned as a child, her lungs were damaged, and she was rejected by several religious orders on the basis of ill health. Ultimately, she founded her own Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and added Xavier to her name, after the Jesuit saint Francis Xavier.

This movie takes place after all that. Portrayed by a gauntly radiant Cristiana Dell’Anna, Cabrini pursues a plan that would have taken her to the Far East, but having badgered the Vatican about it to no avail—her M.O. in the movie is speaking truth to power and doing so relentlessly—she is finally told by Pope Leo XIII himself (a welcome Giancarlo Giannini) that she ought to go instead to New York. There, an explosion circa 1887 of Italian immigration, prejudice and poverty was creating a particular kind of hell for their exported countrymen. You can do much good by going west, she is told by the pontiff—who in fact, if not the film, rebuked the New York archbishop, Michael Corrigan (David Morse), for his mistreatment of his Italian congregation, which Corrigan viewed as no such thing.

Corrigan becomes one of Cabrini’s nemeses, along with the Irish and the N.Y.P.D., which were basically the same thing; various functionaries who just get in her way; and Mayor Gould (a terrific John Lithgow), with whom the nun plays political chess, to the mayor’s surprise and chagrin. (The name Gould doesn’t correspond to a real-life New York mayoralty but is an intriguing choice for the character’s name, given the robber-baron era in which “Cabrini” is set.) Her allies include the prostitute Vittoria (Romana Maggiora Vergano), a traditionalist’s Mary Magdalene to Cabrini’s slowly martyred Christ figure; and Theodore Calloway (Jeremy Bobb), a New York Times reporter who publishes exposes on the plight of the Five Points (“Rats have it better”)—stories that probably have been more likely in the World or Herald, but the film doesn’t take many liberties, and there are few notable omissions.

It’s curious that Jesus is never named in the film (unless he simply never made it into the abundant English subtitles) and that Cabrini’s miracles can’t be mentioned, as they occurred after the movie’s timeframe—although her discovery of drinking water on the land she received from the Jesuits, where they had failed to find any, passes as one.

Archbishop Corrigan gets something of a whitewash by the end of the movie, though its depiction of the Five Points slum—which David McCullough, in his masterful The Great Bridge, called the most notorious in American history and which has been recreated by the likes of Martin Scorsese—seems starkly real. The site of the former Collect Pond, a onetime source of water for New York, the neighborhood was a subterranean, purgatorial pit in which a succession of immigrant groups and Black Americans would live, suffer and die, all under the nose of Gilded Era Manhattan. The portrait is infernal, ambitiously cinematic and makes the work of Cabrini and her sisters all the more impressive, and thoroughly absorbing.

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