Melodrama From ‘Sound of Freedom’ Team

7 Min Read

To quote a famous lyric from the musical Hamilton, immigrants get the job done. That message seems to be getting lost in the current wave of anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the nation, if not the world. But it receives a timely reminder in Cabrini, the new drama about Francesca Cabrini, the Catholic missionary who arrived on our shores in 1889 and eventually established enough schools, orphanages and hospitals to form a veritable charitable empire. She became the first U.S. citizen to be canonized, in 1946, 29 years after her death. (And she’s apparently still performing miracles to this day, since she’s billed as one of the film’s executive producers.)

The film arrives courtesy of Angel Studios and director Alejandro Monteverde, both responsible for last year’s surprise, controversial smash hit about child sex trafficking, Sound of Freedom. This effort will likely prove far less divisive, if also less commercial. An old-fashioned, classically styled biopic, it could well have been produced by Warner Brothers in the 1930s, with Bette Davis in the title role and Paul Muni as the pope.


The Bottom Line

A reverent biopic in every sense.

Release date: Friday, March 8
Cast: Cristiana Dell’Anna, John Lithgow, Romana Maggiora Vergano, David Morse, Giancarlo Giannini, Virginia Bocelli, Frederico Ielapi, Christopher Macchio, Patch Darragh, Rolando Villazon
Director: Alejandro Monteverde
Screenwriters: Alejando Monteverde, Rod Barr

Rated PG-13,
2 hour 25 minutes

That would be Pope Leo XIII, here played by the magnificent Giancarlo Giannini with a twinkle in his eyes. As the story begins, Cabrini (Cristiana Dell’Anna, The King of Laughter), who has already co-founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, implores him to send her to China to become the first woman to lead an overseas mission. He denies the request, but agrees to let her go to New York City to help the many struggling Italian immigrants there. Cabrini advises her fellow nuns to prepare for the journey, telling them, “From now on, my sisters, we speak English,” to the relief of moviegoers who would prefer not to read subtitles for the next two hours.

They set up shop in the slum area of lower Manhattan known as Five Points, which, by the looks of it, hasn’t gotten appreciably better in terms of poverty and crime since its depiction in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Cabrini and her nuns are not exactly encouraged in their efforts by locals including Archbishop Corrigan (David Morse, reliably excellent), who orders her only to solicit funds from fellow Italians so as not to alienate his donors, and the (fictional) Mayor Gould (John Lithgow, relishing his character’s villainy).

She does find some allies, including Father Morelli (Giampiero Judica), a local priest; Enzo (Liam Campora), the leader of a local street gang; Dr. Murphy (Patch Darragh), an Irish physician who isn’t bigoted toward the Italians; Paolo (Frederico Ielapi), a young orphan; and Vittoria (Romana Maggiora Vergano), a prostitute. They don’t come without their complications, however, as when Paolo shoots Vittoria’s pimp.

As the stalwart nun resolutely sets out to achieve her goals, there’s no shortage of old movie-style foreshadowing in the script by Monteverde and Rod Barr. Cabrini, whose lungs are severely compromised, is told by a doctor that she has only two to three years to live. “Five would be a miracle,” he says, not knowing whom he’s dealing with. Later, when she first encounters the beautiful area in upstate New York where she will establish an orphanage, she declares, “I shall be buried here,” which of course she eventually was.

Throughout her efforts, Cabrini faces near insurmountable odds, not the least of which is the pervasive discrimination against Italians and the patriarchal nature of the Catholic Church. Her quiet steeliness is movingly conveyed by Dell’Anna, whose superb performance is all the more effective for its restraint. The actress never resorts to histrionics, displaying Cabrini’s resolute faith in such understated but forceful fashion that we fully believe she can accomplish anything she sets her mind to.

The film smartly avoids making the character a cardboard saint, thanks to such smart dialogue as when Cabrini is ordered back to Italy by the Church at one point. In her subsequent meeting with the pope, he tells her, “You fascinate me, Cabrini. I can’t tell when your faith ends and your ambition begins.”

Another dramatic highlight occurs when she finally gets a personal meeting with the mayor, thanks to the pressure applied by a sympathetic New York Times reporter (Jeremy Bobb). She tells him that one day there’ll be an Italian mayor (there’s that foreshadowing again) before he finally gives in to her demands. “You would have made an excellent man,” he begrudgingly offers by way of a compliment. “Oh no, mister mayor,” she responds. “Men could never do what we do.”

The film, which feels overlong at 145 minutes, suffers both from repetition and an over-reliance on melodramatic plot devices. But it nonetheless delivers a compelling portrait of a heroine whose story is too little-known. And it looks terrific despite its limited budget, thanks to Carlos Lagunas’ superb production design and Gorka Gomez Andreau’s lustrous, golden-tinged cinematography.  

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