Cabrini (PG-13) ★★★

Review Date: March 5th, 2024

Cabrini is a bio-pic of Francesca Cabrini (Christiana Dell'Anna), a Catholic nun who came to the United States from Italy in the late 1800s and became a passionate advocate for immigrants. She was beatified in 1938 and canonized in 1946, becoming the first American saint. The film, recognizing that an encapsulation of her entire life of would result in a scattershot production, has instead focused on the period between 1887 and 1890. Although the movie has a conventional structure, the straightforward chronological approach works for this material, allowing the viewer to come to know Cabrini and become invested in her efforts to develop an orphanage, first in New York's Five Points slum then in rural West Park.

Cabrini paints the title character as a strong-willed feminist who backs down from nothing and overcomes every obstacle. Her personality is half-faith, half-obstinance. Her first confrontation with Pope Leo XIII (Giancarlo Giannini) is indicative of what will come. She seeks his approval for a missionary journey to China. He refuses but her persistence is such that he instead offers her another opportunity: "Not to the East but to the West." He sends her to New York, where a flood of Italian immigrants in the Five Points area has overwhelmed efforts to provide humanitarian aid.

Accompanied by six other nuns, Mother Cabrini crosses the ocean and encounters her next obstacle: the unhelpfulness of the local archbishop, Michael Corrigan (David Morse), who is not convinced of the validity or efficacy of Cabrini's purpose: to minister to the poor and sick and renovate an orphanage to provide humane care for children without parents. (Orphanages of the day being straight out of Dickens.) Although Corrigan is initially presented as a villain, the screenplay cannily develops the character into a neutral figure. Unlike Mother Cabrini, who has tunnel vision, Corrigan sees a broader picture - one that demands he work with figures like Mayor Gould (John Lithgow). The archbishop is responsible for his entire flock, not just a segment of it. (The film only briefly touches on the tension between Irish Catholics and Italian Catholics, although this was at the heart of Corrigan's dilemma.)

Although the movie features several internationally recognized actors in supporting roles - David Morse, Giancarlo Giannini, and John Lithgow, in particular - the most notable performance comes from lead actress Christiana Dell'Anna, an Italian actress with limited exposure outside her native country. She portrays Cabrini as a force of nature, but the moments of kindness and vulnerability, such as when she takes the prostitute Vittoria (Romana Maggiora Vergano) under her wings, flesh out the character's three-dimensionality.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the film is the degree to which director Alejandro Monteverde is able to recreate Five Points with an authenticity to match that of Martin Scorsese (whose Gangs of New York was set in that neighborhood some forty years earlier). Nowadays, big budget movies have access to computer imagery that can recreate any place or time but, without the funding necessary for such an expensive endeavor, Monteverde does it the old-fashioned way and brings back parts of New York lost more than a century ago.

There are evident immigration parallels between how Italians were perceived by the overall population around the turn of the 19th/20th century and how things are today. Although Cabrini doesn't dwell on such similarities, they are impossible to miss, even for someone not specifically looking for them. But the movie isn't intended to be allegorical; this part of history is necessary to an understanding of the difficulties faced by Mother Cabrini. The result is an engaging account of a woman whose faith and personality allowed her to make a difference in the face of astronomical odds.

© 2024 James Berardinelli