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Film review: Cabrini

08 March 2024

Stephen Brown reviews the new biopic about St Francesca Cabrini

Francesca Cabrini (played by Cristiana Dell’Anna), who goes to the Vatican to plead her case to Pope Leo XIII in Cabrini

Francesca Cabrini (played by Cristiana Dell’Anna), who goes to the Vatican to plead her case to Pope Leo XIII in Cabrini

THE film Cabrini (Cert. 12A) plays like the parable of the judge and the importunate woman’s pleading. Mother Francesca’s persistence, after Vatican rejection 11 times, is rewarded. She petitions to take her Lombardy-based Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to found orphanages in the Far East, fulfilling a childhood dream inspired by her uncle, a priest.

We get a recurring image of paper boats she constructed floating away containing violets as missionaries. A wearied cardinal finally arranges for Francesca (Cristiana Dell’Anna) to take tea with Pope XIII (Giancarlo Giannini), whom she charms into agreement, but on one condition. The Sisters go west, not east; to New York City, where hordes of Italian immigrants suffer hostility and dire poverty.

Once there, the Sisters take over a badly run orphanage in Lower East Side. The year is 1889. Abandoned children are rescued from sewers. Destitute families receive health care, education, work, and the means to live as citizens of the New World. Far from a Disneyfied view of things, it portrays Francesca’s determination against all odds which gets the job done.

This is the work of a frail woman. We know this from the coughing fit early in the film. In fact, we get a fair number of foretellings, which are typical of the way in which the narrative proceeds. For instance, a visit to an upstate New York beauty spot prompts her to declare that she will be buried there. And so she eventually is. We also learn of how, as a result of Cabrini’s vision, dozens of orphanages, schools, and hospitals are established worldwide. (This includes a school in Southwark.)

Cristiana Dell’Anna as Francesca Cabrini in Cabrini

The film comes from Angel Studios, formerly a Mormon-owned company, which now produces heart-warming, inspiring films. It would, however, be facile to conclude that this is a run-of-the-mill advert for religious belief. The Mexican director, José Alejandro Gómez Monteverde, steers a skilful line between overbearing sentimentality and fact-after-fact documentation of someone who became the first American citizen to be canonised

Admittedly, Monteverde’s previous movie, Sound of Freedom, based on a real-life anti-sex trafficking agent, drew criticism for its simplistic, faith-based analysis of a global phenomenon. Lessons have been learned here, and, if anything, the religious element is rather understated. Jesus told his parable to encourage disciples not to give up on prayer. It is not always apparent that love of Christ motivates Cabrini. Undoubtedly a thorn in the side of ecclesiastical hierarchies, she is told at one point that it is hard to see in her where faith ends and ambition begins. Unapologetically, the film echoes the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann’s argument that “it is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing future alternatives.”

It so happens that Cabrini is good at implementation, too, contending with the sanctified inertia of the Church, the misogynistic obstructiveness of New York politicians, and an inherent racism about immigrants. Andrea and Virginia Bocelli’s “Dare to Dream” sung over the credits summarises a life well-lived and stunningly portrayed. This a beautiful film, in which the cinematography and set designs often speak better than E. M. Forster’s “talkative Christianity”.

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