February 8, 2024 – In 1889, a small, frail woman (played by Cristiana Dell'Anna of “The King of Laughter”) with a big idea, landed in New York City, determined to change the world. She was told to get out, that she didn't belong. She had been told that her whole life. Her plans were constantly opposed by authorities. Yet, more than 100 years after her death, in 2019, in voting for the “She Built NYC” statue program, she got the most votes by far of any of the 300 candidates for the title.
Maria Francesca Cabrini (now known as Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini) was born two months prematurely in Italy in 1850. She was told she was too frail for missionary service, so she ended up founding her own missionary order, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
She relentlessly petitions the Catholic Church for permission to establish a mission in China, eventually getting an audience with Pope Leo XIII himself (played by Giancarlo Giannini of “Quantum of Solace”) who is impressed with her determination and ambition. Cabrini tells the pope that “the world is too small for what I intend to do.” She plans to build an empire for helping the poor and sick.
The pope doesn't want to send Cabrini to China, so he tells her that if the world is not big enough for her plans, than it doesn't matter where she starts. He tells her to start in the west, not in the east, and sends her and her small order to New York City to serve the destitute Italian immigrants living there. There are many orphans in the slums who need a home and many sick people who are in need of a hospital.
In those days, the Italians were among the lowest of the American castes, even lower than the Irish. They are unwelcomed, much like the immigrants now being bussed into New York City from the southern border. Cabrini and her small band of followers make their way on foot from the boat to the Five Points area of New York City, a shanty town of mostly Italians living in extreme poverty, where the rats have it better than the orphan children.
Cabrini is a skilled fund raiser with a talent for finding donors to fund her orphanages and hospitals, but she faces strong opposition from Archbishop Corrigan (played by David Morse of “World War Z”) who is worried that Cabrini will stir up trouble with his own donors. He tells her that she cannot seek funds from the people in New York who have a lot of money. She can only seek funds from the Italian community.
The movie opens with a young Italian immigrant in New York City, Paolo (Federico Ielapi of “Pinocchio”) seeking medical care for his mother, who dies in the street when nobody helps her. Paolo and others end up being cared for by Cabrini and her nuns, and he is a continuing presence throughout the movie. Among those who help Cabrini in her fight to build an orphanage and a hospital are a New York Times reporter named Calloway (Jeremy Bobb of “God's Country”) a local physician, Dr. Murphy (Patch Darragh of “Sully”) and a prostitute, Vittoria (Romana Maggiora Vergano).
Cabrini is strongly opposed by New York Mayor Gould (a fictional character played by John Lithgow of “Sharper”) who uses the levers of power to thwart her plans at every turn. The bulk of the movie is made up of Cabrini's struggles against the opposition of the public, the church and the government, and how she succeeds despite all the forces working against her. Cabrini's strategy, as stated in the movie, sounds a lot like the “build it and they will come” idea made famous in “Field of Dreams.”
While the movie is overly melodramatic at times, it is largely factual, unlike director Alejandro Monteverde's massively popular film, “Sound of Freedom” (2023). Also unlike his previous film, it has high production values and a solid musical score (by Gene Back, who also plays some stringed instruments on the soundtrack). Also heard in the film is the voice of the legendary Enrico Caruso, singing “Vesti La Giubba” from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.
Award-winning cinematographer Gorka Gómez Andreu (“House of Others”) does a great job, along with a lot of help from special effects people, in making this movie look authentic. This is a good looking film with a number of imaginative images. There are a number of visual references relating to Cabrini's fear of drowning. The acting by Cristiana Dell'Anna, Morse, Lithgow, Bobb and others, is convincing.
After watching this, and “Sound of Freedom” it is hard to believe that both films were made by the same studio (Angel Studios, Provo, Utah) and director, but they are. Cabrini is the superior film of the two, but it probably won't be as financially successful, since it promotes true Christian values, rather than a phony rescue mission and outrageous conspiracy ideas. It also appears to be a much more expensive film to produce. It is due to be released in theaters March 8, 2024.
This movie focuses on a very short period in the life of Cabrini. Her main accomplishments, most of which follow years later, are mentioned in intertitles near the end of the film. Her fellow nuns, who would carry on Cabrini's work for many years following her death in 1917, are largely in the background of this film as well, as is her religious faith.
There is a religious motivation for what Cabrini accomplished in her life, but in this story, it is simplified and secularized: She a nun, she sees needs, she dedicates her life to address those needs, overcoming roadblocks erected by church authorities along the way. This movie rates a B.
As an additional note: I knew very little about Cabrini prior to seeing this movie, but years ago, I did see the Cabrini Shrine in Golden, Colorado (Golden, by the way, is also the home of Coors Brewing Company).
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