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Cabrini scene

“Cabrini” Is Taking Over Theaters—and Overtaking Divisions

March 8, 2024


Cabrini, the new film from Angel Studios about St. Frances Xavier Cabrini—the Italian-born patron saint of immigrants and the first American citizen canonized by the Catholic Church—lands in theaters today. And it lands at a very interesting time when ideological division seems to reign supreme—in the Church, in America, and in the relationship between them. 

But with Cabrini, Catholic director Alejandro Gómez Monteverde and the ascendant studio behind The Chosen have something of a crossover hit on their hands. Its mass appeal not only comes through a well-crafted film, but also through its resistance to being pigeon-holed on one side or the other of our deep divides. And this broadness of spirit—this refusal to stay put—is, in many ways, the whole point of the story. 

When we first meet Mother Cabrini—a phenomenal performance by Cristiana Dell’Anna, who was perfectly cast—she’s being summoned to the Vatican after persistently writing letters about starting a new mission in China. She negotiates her way through the resistance of the cardinal outranking her—the first of many such negotiations for Cabrini—and secures a meeting with his own superior, Pope Leo XIII. The pope relents to her mission, but on one condition: “Begin in the West, not the East.” She is to go the slums of New York and minister to Italian immigrants, becoming the first woman to lead a mission overseas. 

The picture of Mother Cabrini that emerges, almost immediately, is of a resilient, shrewd, strong-willed woman—not only in an Italian mother sort of way (though certainly that), but more importantly, in her constant battle against both physical illness and social and political pressure. And she’s courageous; indeed, she’s even more courageous than the film lets on: an early scene alludes to her nearly drowning as a young woman, an event that gave her a deep fear of water—needless to say, an inconvenient phobia for anyone tasked with going back and forth across the Atlantic. 

She continues plowing ahead, armed only with her habit and habits of virtue.

Yet, more fundamentally, Cabrini is, and remains, a faithful Christian and an obedient daughter of the Church. At the heart of her life are the three theological virtues. She’s a woman of faith: “Begin the mission,” she repeats, “and the means will come.” She’s a woman of hope, longing to build an entire “empire of hope” across the world. And she’s a woman of charity, ministering to the “least of these” as Christ commanded in Matthew 25. “At the hour of our death,” she declares later in the film, “we will all be asked one question: What did we do for the poor? The sick? The homeless? For those stripped of dignity?” Indeed, when Cabrini and her sisters first arrive in the Five Points district of lower Manhattan, a squalid slum packed tight with poor immigrants, they see three girls disappear into the darkness and begin to look for them, calling to mind these “sisters” of the divine life. Faith, hope, and charity have vanished in this place, but these Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus make it their business to build a home around them. 

We follow Mother Cabrini as she encounters setback after setback, pushback after pushback, with both the archbishop (David Morse) and the mayor (John Lithgow) giving her grief. Yet she continues plowing ahead, armed only with her habit and habits of virtue. She grows the orphanage, expanding to a hospital; she rescues Italian youth from starvation and prostitution (a subplot involving a young prostitute and her pimp makes the movie unsuitable for kids); and she publicly defends the dignity of the Italians—so often dehumanized as filthy and crime-ridden “dagos” and “monkeys.” 

In short, she continues, humbly but doggedly, to do God’s work in the world, even descending—like Christ himself—into a hellish darkness under Five Points with the lamp of love. And she doesn’t proceed with Stoic resignation; she laughs in triumph, weeps in sorrow, and cries out in righteous indignation. “I am done with little men like you, with hearts the size of a peanut!” she cries out at one point. “We are all the same—children of God—and you dismiss us at your own peril!”

So what is Cabrini? It’s easier to say what it’s not. It’s not just a movie for Catholics: the film celebrates the works flowing out of Cabrini’s faith, works reflective of the principles of Catholic social teaching. But it’s also not a reduction of Catholicism to social justice: the sisters pray before a meal, minister under the Sacred Heart image on their wall, and remind themselves that they’ll rest in heaven; Cabrini, at a low point, takes refuge in a chapel, and the language of Scripture—even the threat of God’s wrath—springs readily to her lips multiple times.

“Begin the mission . . . and the means will come.”

It’s not a reactionary movie: the film has a clear emphasis throughout on the equal dignity and value of immigrants and women (and is even timed to release on International Women’s Day). But it’s also not a secular-liberal jab at patriarchy and tradition: Cabrini works within the boundaries of the institutional Church—and the hierarchs, even if they limit her at times, nevertheless work with her charisms and increasingly support her mission; her bluntest refusal, in fact, comes from an opera singer who won’t give her money because he wants nothing to do with the Church she represents.

It’s not the shallow faith-based fare of a Christian subculture: with its classic overcoming-the-odds story, solid actors, and wide distribution (the first Angel movie, if it’s any indication, to hit my local theater), it’s primed for a much broader impact. But it’s also not that subculture selling out to Hollywood: this is, in the vein of A Man for All Seasons, a film about saintly virtue that anyone can appreciate without shying away from the faith. 

In short, it’s both a Catholic and catholic (katholikos, meaning universal) movie—the story of a modern heroine of the faith that will have everyone cheering for her. It’s not a perfect movie—the operatic score and strong messaging at times feel a bit overwrought and heavy-handed, and there were missed opportunities to draw out more profound spiritual depths—but certainly a wonderful and worthwhile one. 

In the warm, atmospheric, almost dream-like cinematography of Cabrini, the Statue of Liberty appears twice—and both times at a distance, like a kind of mirage. It’s a powerful suggestion of the unrealized ideal of the words it bears, an ideal that Mother Cabrini, rooted in her Catholic faith, might just help us collectively aspire to again: one united nation caring for the tired, poor, huddled masses washed up on, and tossed aside between, its shores.