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‘Cabrini’ Review: A Solemn Old-School Biopic Of America’s First Saint

They say that conflict is the essence of drama, and in this handsome but impossibly somber biopic there is almost nothing but conflict. Following up last year’s surprise hit Sound of Freedom, director Alejandro Monteverde neatly sidesteps a repeat of that film’s controversy with a story that cannot remotely be interpreted as a QAnon allegory. Based on the true story of Frances Xavier Cabrini — literally the first American saint — this takes a most un-MAGA viewpoint on immigration, painting an unvarnished portrait of racism in a country that is supposed to embrace the tired and the poor.

Right from the start, Cabrini impresses with its set design, giving Martin Scorsese’s studio work a run for its money and taking place shortly after the latter’s atmospheric brace of 19th century movies The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York. A title card informs us that between 1899 and 1910 some 2 million Italians emigrated to America in search of a new life. But as we see from the pre-credits sequence, in which a seriously ill Italian woman — Cabrini — is rushed to a hospital, New York back in those days wasn’t exactly rolling out the red carpet for this new influx of foreigners from Europe.

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In flashback, we meet Cabrini (Gomorra’s Cristiana Dell’Anna) back in her homeland, where she runs an order of nuns in Cordogno. She has big plans, and mistakes a summons from the Vatican as an invitation to state her case. Instead, she is smacked down from on high and told to “stay where you belong.” The Holy Father, however, is impressed by her tenacity, and the ambitious scope of her intention to combat poverty by establishing an independent order of missionary women in the Far East and then working back through Afghanistan and Persia. “The world is too small for what I intend to do,” she says, perhaps the ne plus ultra of the script’s many self-consciously profound one-liners.

Cabrini’s seemingly boundless energy is contrasted, meanwhile, by dark portents of her ailing health (a childhood incident in which she nearly drowned has left her with a serious lung condition and between two to five years left to live). Nevertheless, the Pope reaches a compromise by suggesting she begin in the West, not the East, and off she goes to set up shop at an orphanage in Five Points on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, back then a kind of lawless, post-apocalyptic Middle-earth inhabited by gangsters, pimps and prostitutes.

The mission starts small, and Cabrini runs into problems when she tries to grow her brand, which starts with children and soon blossoms to include the poorly paid underclass that is building the city’s emerging skyline. Everyone she speaks to — and they are all men — says no, but Cabrini bangs on, even persuading a curmudgeonly opera singer (modeled loosely on Enrico Caruso) to perform at a show of Italian culture. This brings the wrath of the NYPD down on her, making a big enemy of New York’s mayor (John Lithgow), and resulting in a not-to-be-trifled-with deportation order from the church.

Though there are cliffhangers at every turn, there’s not a lot of tension here, as Cabrini makes short work of every obstacle in her path (this being a biopic of a woman who was subsequently canonized rather gives the game away). Fortunately, Dell’Anna plays the central role with such steely, unreadable determination that the constant rebuffs become kind of hypnotic, and it’s interesting to see the different approaches used by her co-stars — alongside Lithgow, there’s David Morse, Patch Darragh and Giancarlo Giannini — to lift up roles that, on the page, might have been the equivalents of NPCs in a video game.

Cabrini has already been referred to as “a faith-based film,” which is a bit unfair as the story is one of passion and community activism rather than belief per se (though the Catholic Church admittedly gets off lightly). Angel Studios’ decision to release the film on International Women’s Day therefore makes a lot of sense, but although the real-life story is the very definition of inspirational, Monteverde’s dour tone, often exacerbated by his none-too-subtle use of score, doesn’t exactly make 145 minutes fly by. Still, it’s a story worth telling, and its solemn, old-school storybook stylings are quite refreshing in the modern age.

Title: Cabrini
Distributor: Angel Studios
Director: Alejandro Monteverde
Screenwriters: Rod Barr, Alejandro Monteverde
Cast: Cristiana Dell’Anna, Romana Maggiora Vergano, John Lithgow, David Morse, Giancarlo Giannini, Patch Darragh
Rating: PG-13
Running time: 2 hr 25 min

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