Director: Alejandro Monteverde
Screenplay: Rod Barr (story by Rod Barr & Alejandro Monteverde)
Stars: Cristiana Dell’Anna (Francesca Cabrini), David Morse (Archbishop Corrigan), Romana Maggiora Vergano (Vittoria), Federico Ielapi (Paolo), Virginia Bocelli (Aria), Rolando Villazón (DiSalvo), Giancarlo Giannini (Pope Leo XIII), John Lithgow (Mayor Gould), Giampiero Judica (Father Morelli), Eugenia Forteza (Sister Umilia)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2024
Country: U.S.

There has—not surprisingly—been some reluctance among certain viewers to even consider Alejandro Monteverde’s Cabrini given that the director’s previous film was the controversial Sound of Freedom (2023), which he also co-wrote with Rob Barr and was likewise distributed by the faith-based Angel Studios (which bought the rights from 20th Century Fox using equity crowdfunding after it was shelved five years earlier following that studio’s purchase by Disney). I haven’t seen Sound of Freedom, which is an action thriller loosely based on the true story of a former government agent-turned-rescuer of trafficked children, so I can’t comment on its virtues and/or deficits. However, I know enough about the film and the political hoopla swirling around it to know that the cacophony of vitriol on the political right (“If you don’t see and love this movie, then you’re a pedophile in favor of sex trafficking children!”) and on the political left (“If you see and love this movie, then you are a Trumpist-QAnon stooge!”) that any discussion of the film itself was largely drowned out. Unfortunately, there is a similar risk with Cabrini, which by all measures is a solid historical biopic that dramatizes the life and struggles of a notable saint who made a genuine different in the world.

Cristiana Dell’Anna (Gomorrah) stars as the titular Catholic missionary Francesca Cabrini, who came to the U.S. from Italy in the early 20th century to help poor Italian immigrants living in the Five Points area of New York City. In its broadest contours, Cabrini is a story of grit and determination, as Cabrini must struggle against not just the stark, harsh realities of immense poverty, desperation, and exploitation of the most vulnerably among us, but also the male-dominated structure of the Catholic Church, which at virtually every level resists her ambitions (she ends up in the U.S. after a series of cardinals and eventually the Pope himself reject her plans to start a new missionary order in China). Once in the U.S., she finds more resistance from New York’s Archbishop Corrigan (David Morse), who works with her reluctantly at best, and is openly hostile to her endeavors at worst. Yet, she plows ahead, flanked by her order of equally determined sisters and with the help of various people she meets and helps, including a seasoned prostitute named Vittoria (Maggiora Vergano). She finds plenty of resistance outside the Catholic Church, as well, most predominantly from the xenophobic New York Mayor Gould (John Lithgow), whose loathing of Italians (and pretty much all darker skinned immigrants) echoes current political rhetoric among some conservatives.

And that is just one of the reasons why any a priori assaults on Cabrini from liberals based on its artistic and commercial connections to Sound of Freedom should be viewed with suspicion since the film itself deserves its own assessment. The themes of self-empowered women fighting within a patriarchal structure to not just do some good in the world, but to help a struggling underclass that is persecuted for the color of their skin, the accent of their voices, and their country of origin hardly aligns with some twisted, Christian Nationalist-Trumpist agenda.

This is not to say that the film is flawless. Despite being beautifully shot by cinematographer Gorka Gómez Andreu and brandishing impressive production design by Carlos Lagunas that highlights the grit and squalor of the darker corners of turn-of-the-20th-century New York (which Martin Scorsese depicted in decidedly more operatic, but arguably less dramatically consequential, means in 2002’s Gangs of New York), there are elements of the film that feel a bit forced. Screenwriter Rod Barr (working from a story credited to him and director Alejandro Monteverde) leans heavily into largely uncomplicated archetypes (the prostitute with a heart of gold, the scrappy orphan, the physically weakened by spiritually indestructible protagonist), which gives the drama an air of the preordained. However, under Monteverde’s assured direction and Cristiana Dell’Anna’s tough central performance, the film works well enough, offering a meaningful history lesson that aligns all too clearly with the strife of our current world.

Copyright © 2024 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3)

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