MOVIE REVIEW: Cabrini Is a Must See Despite Too Much Girl Power and Not Enough Holiness



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A new Angel Studios film, Cabrini, opened on March 8. Angel Studios is an independent studio that produces products with an overtly Christian appeal. It is probably best known for the television series The Chosen and the movie Sound of Freedom.


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Cabrini is sort of a biopic of a slice of the life of Mana Francesca Cabrini, known by her religious name, Frances Xavier Cabrini, and is best known as Mother Cabrini. Mother Cabrini was born in Lodi province in the Lombard region of Italy in 1850. She tried to enter the teaching order Daughters of the Sacred Heart but was denied admittance because of her frail health. She took religious vows in 1877 and in 1880, undeterred, and that became the motto of her life; by her rejection, she created her own religious order, the Institute of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, along with seven other young women and became the first leader giving her the appellation “Mother.”

Her order was controversial from the start as it had “Missionary” in the name as only men were permitted to become missionaries. Even though her immediate focus was caring for orphans in her home region — she and her sisters created seven orphanages, a free school, and a nursery in its first five years — her dream was to go to China as a missionary.

After the Vatican repeatedly refused her request to go to China, Cabrini traveled to Rome in 1887 and wrangled a personal audience with Pope Leo XIII. He granted her wish to be the first woman to lead a religious missionary expedition with one small deviation from her request: “Not to the East, but to the West,” said the Pope, directing her to serve the burgeoning Italian immigrant population in New York.

To say she succeeded is an understatement. Under her leadership, the physically frail nun created an immense network of schools, hospitals, and other institutions that still survive. At its height, her order had grown from Mother Cabrini and seven sisters to 8,000 women.

In 1889, New York seemed to be filled with chaos and poverty, and into this new world stepped Mother Frances Cabrini and her sister companions. Cabrini organized catechism and education classes for the Italian immigrants and provided for the needs of the many orphans. She established schools and orphanages despite tremendous odds.

Soon, requests for her to open schools came to Frances Cabrini from all over the world. She traveled to Europe, Central and South America and throughout the United States. She made 23 trans-Atlantic crossings and established 67 institutions: schools, hospitals and orphanages.

Her activity was relentless until her death. On December 22, 1917, in Chicago, she died. In 1946, she was canonized a saint by Pope Pius XII in recognition of her holiness and service to mankind and was named Patroness of Immigrants in 1950.

Today the Missionary Sisters, their lay collaborators and volunteers work as teachers, nurses, social workers, administrators and members of institutional boards of trustees. They can be found on six continents and 15 countries throughout the world – wherever there is a need.

SPOILER ALERT: Mother Cabrini succeeds despite all obstacles.

She arrived in Five Points, Manhattan, in 1889. It was pretty much a hell-on-Earth with some 50,000 Italians crammed into tenements or living on the street. The priest who is supposed to assist her wants nothing to do with her. The Archbishop of New York wants her gone. The mayor sees her as a threat and a nuisance. She is threatened by a pimp who is miffed because she steals one of his profit centers away. Non-Italian New Yorkers see the Italians as something less than animals. Along the way, she attracts allies in the form of plucky orphans, a reformed hooker, the leaders of other immigrant communities, and eventually wins over the Archbishop. She sweetly browbeats into submission the Pope, an archbishop, an opera star, and the Italian Senate. She confronts bigotry that refuses to provide medical aid to Italians, a brutal police force, and a corrupt city government.

For a much better review than I can write, read this one.

The Good

The photography and costumes are wonderful. New Yorkers’ attitude to the newest wave of non-English-speaking, non-Protestant immigrants with no understanding of freedom or self-government is spot on. Also interesting is the subtext of the position of recent immigrants as portrayed by David Morse in the role of Archbishop Michael Corrigan. They are so interested in not making waves and blending in with native New Yorkers that they ignore the plight of immigrants like their parents suffered. Cabrini’s persistence and goodness come through. I think Cabrini’s actions are straight from the Parable of the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8). In a society that is increasingly paralyzed by inaction and indecision, seeing what one person, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, can accomplish is a tonic.

Cristiana Dell’Anna gives a pitch-perfect rendition of Mother Cabrini. David Morse and John Lithgow are as excellent as they usually are.

The Not So Good

For a movie based on the life of a saint, it is decidedly non-religious. I suppose this was focus-tested at some point along the way, but it really detracts from the movie. God is maybe mentioned once. Jesus is not mentioned. The only prayer in the movie is one scene where the nuns say grace before a meal, and it is done in a very non-Catholic way. The characters are almost archetypes. The bad guys are really bad. The good guys are really good. We never know anything about the seven women in her religious order who accompanied her. The Archbishop is the closest to a three-dimensional character. The Mayor of New York develops a nuanced personality in the last scene. There is too much “girl boss” going on for my taste, and rolling the movie out on “International Women’s Day” is too cute by half. I don’t know if “men are bad and women are good” was a theme the movie was supposed to push, but it comes through.

The opportunities for the Christian faith to be effortlessly incorporated into the movie were limitless. Cabrini never prays and never contemplates her pain in terms of sanctifying suffering. She never has doubts about her mission or her abilities. She never prays for guidance or assistance. All of this is very un-Catholic, particularly in the context of a nun. At one point, the Archbishop tells her he often wonders if she is acting out of her religious calling or from ambition. It’s a question that needed to be explored and answered but ended up as a toss-away line in the script.

The decision to make a film that doesn’t fit into the “Christian movie” genre results in attributing Cabrini’s work to her efforts rather than to the greater glory of God. That is unfortunate.

In my view, there were many missed opportunities to evangelize and present Cabriini’s faith front and center. That’s too bad. 

Recommendation

In a time when courage and faith are mocked, it is great to see those virtues lauded. It is also refreshing to see people doing good things without violence or gratuitous nudity. Go see it. It is a strong story, even if it is uplifting but not inspiring. 



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