The dramatic biopic Cabrini opened recently in theaters, and while it was produced by various film production companies, it is being marketed and distributed by Angel Studios (the same studio that brought you Sound of Freedom and The Shift). The film was written by Rod Barr and Alejandro Monteverde (who also directed the film) and was based on the extensive research and funding by executive producer J. Eustace Wolfington (all three of whom are devout Catholics).

The film opens with an on-screen intro stating the horrible conditions endured by Italian immigrants in New York in the late 19th century, and the heart-rending plight of an Italian boy unable to get medical attention for his dying mother. The film them switches to Italy where we see Mother Francis Xavier Cabrini (wonderfully played by Cristiana Dell’Anna) as the headmistress of an orphange run by her order, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Having been turned down time and again by the Vatican to do missionary work in China, Mother Cabrini insists on a personal meeting with the Pope one last time. Pope Leo XIII relents and grants Cabrini’s wish to be a missionary, however not to the Orient but to the poor streets of New York City to help the Italian immigrants there.

The rest of the film deals with all of her troubles as she and her sisters struggle to establish an orphanage and then a hospital in a New York brimming with anti-Italian bigotry and an entrenched upper-class that wants nothing to do with the unwashed masses outside their privileged enclaves. Using the same tenacity which helped her changed the Pope’s mind, Mother Cabrini deals with one overbearing and obstinate person after another from a local priest and a pimp all the way to mayor of New York himself. Despite being over two hours long, the film is well-paced and wonderfully acted as it tells a moving tale of America’s first saint to call its own.

There is much that can, and already has, been written and spoken about Cabrini, more than can be said in a single review. This is why we here at The Everyman we decided to ask five of our Catholic writers to go see the film and offer their own specific take on it. Here then are their thoughts.

Not Perfect, but Worth Watching by Caroline Furlong

Angel Studios’ Cabrini focuses on the life and mission of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, an Italian woman who founded her own teaching order of nuns, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. During the time frame in which the film is set – 1889 to 1910 – Mother Frances Cabrini worked among the Italian immigrants in the United States, founding orphanages and hospitals to serve them and anyone else in need. She became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1909.

Cabrini merits some criticism. To show Mother Cabrini asking the Pope if the reason she was denied her request to go to the Orient was because she was a woman was a question out of place and time. Orders of nuns have not been stopped from serving somewhere simply because they are women, but often because the direction is deemed unsuitable for safety or other reasons. For her to even ask such a question of the Pope is dubious.

The film Cabrini’s lack of obvious prayer and reliance on God is another issue. The absence of miracles – some of which were attributed to her in her lifetime – was also regrettable. The filmmakers wished to make the movie appeal to all audiences, but this creative decision still struck me as lamentable. Finally, to see Cabrini portrayed as making what amounts to a deal with the devil to enlist the help of the mayor of New York (a man in the mold of the politicians of Tammany Hall) to achieve her goals is simply not appealing to me. It does not sour my opinion of the film but it is not the triumphant note the finale should have been.

These criticisms, however, did not stop me from enjoying the movie and its message, one made plain in the film (except for the “Is it because I’m a woman?” line in the first fifteen minutes): Mother Cabrini is a mother superior who works for her people. Cristiana Dell’Anna magnificently portrays the power of a maternal woman who will not let the selfishness and crass disregard of others hinder her mission any more than she will accept a well-meaning order to “stay in [her] place.” The way she uses that power is refreshing; she does not berate, browbeat, or attempt to physically force her will on others.

Instead, she refuses to take no for an answer. For instance, when New York Times author Theodore Calloway (Jeremy Bobb) won’t go to the slums of Five Points with her, Mother merely smiles and tells the Sister who accompanied her that, “Mr. Calloway will need his hat.” The Sister goes to the hat rack, takes both Calloway’s hat and coat from the rack, and presses them into his hands before following Mother Cabrini out the door.

Oh, certainly, Calloway could stay perched on the edge of his desk – he need not follow them. But Mother Cabrini has dared him to follow her and see what she sees. To ignore such a dare would blemish a man’s honor, a mark even a reporter would blush at, which is precisely what prompts him to go with her to Five Points. She does not argue nor physically force him; she simply challenges him to discount her tale, he who prides himself on never overlooking a story. Calloway does the rest of the work himself.

The movie continues in the same vein. Men try to shout Mother down, but she keeps talking until they decide it is in their best interests to listen to her. They try to stonewall her, so she goes around them to persuade their superiors. When they threaten her, she stands her ground. Cabrini makes a very good point: A woman’s power is not a man’s power. Woman’s might does not lie in physical strength or in behaving like a man.

Rather, as Kipling said and Mr. John C. Wright agrees, women know nothing of and have little use for chivalry. Mother Cabrini has no problem “fighting dirty” if she must with those who try to stop her, and she only confronts threats directly when she cannot circumvent them. In a world that despises such persistent female fortitude, Cabrini reminds audiences of what women are truly capable of when they embrace their true feminine powers. It is in this vein a worthwhile film which I heartily recommend and one I intend to see again at the next opportunity.

Faith-Free Feminism & Ferocity by Vincent Weaver

On the opening night of Cabrini, I attended the movie with my wife, four of my five daughters, and my future son-in-law. The cinematography was excellent. The acting was (mostly) superb (How can you go wrong with John Lithgow playing a villain?). Cristiana Dell’Anna as Mother Cabrina captured the screen with her facial expressions alone. Romana Maggiora Vergano as the young prostitute also offered a notable performance. Though only capturing a small part of her overall life, Cabrini also provided a nice education on the unique and powerful life she led.

I enjoyed and was moved by the movie through about the halfway point. But then there was a moment when the Sainted nun leaned into the character of Dr. Murphy who was helping her get a hospital started, and she said in cheeky fashion, “See if (one of the likely benefactors) can add another zero to his contribution.” That’s when it hit me. Something absolutely fundamental was missing from this picture – faith.

Cabrini (rightly) portrays the title character as a powerful, strong-willed woman who simply won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. However, the way this story is told, it is ALL about “will”. That strong will was, no doubt, critical to her success. She was utterly fearless and displayed remarkable ferocity in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. But nothing – and I mean NOTHING – is mentioned about her putting her challenges to prayer (unless you count a very brief scene of her saying the blessing over a meal with the others in her order near the beginning of the film). She’s never shown kneeling in Church or before His Real Presence in the Eucharist. No indication of attending mass. No appeals to God or even looking up for guidance.

The opportunities to show the guiding force behind her mission were legion, and yet – crickets. The closest thing we get to her faith even mattering is that she wears a habit and talks to quite a few men in the Catholic hierarchy. (Every one of those churchmen – save the Pope – came off as cowardly and dismissive of any efforts to do the work of Christ and His Church. Pope Leo XIII was at least a tolerable character, but the true greatness and holiness of this giant of the 19th century wasn’t acknowledged in the least. The local priest at Five Points in NYC might as well have been Homer Simpson in a cassock. If he had been given a yellow hue and had they used a doughnut in place of his pail full of noodles, the comparison would’ve been complete.)

The icing on the cringe came right at the end when Mayor Gould (portrayed in classic vile fashion by Lithgow) realizing Mother Cabrini had him boxed into a corner, offered a backhanded compliment, “You would have made an excellent man.” Cabrini smiles wryly and replies, “Men could never do what we do.” These are not the words of a Saint – regardless of gender. This is false pride on full display, and it’s a poor representation of this woman and her work. The line struck me as a gratuitous grab at feminist sentimentality. I winced when a couple dozen people in the theater applauded such words. It’s no coincidence that this movie was released on “International Women’s Day”. It’s just a shame that it tried so hard to champion feminism rather than focusing on the beautiful, transcendental nature of genuine femininity that St. Cabrini certainly personified.

One final note of support for Angel Studios, despite my negative comments above. Thank you for making the effort to put out quality films with meaningful content as a counter to the vacuous attempts at moviemaking by most in Hollywood. Even if Cabrini missed the mark, your work is needed and provides hope and encouragement for a fallen world.

The Message of Cabrini by Bradley Shumaker

Cabrini has all the elements of a good movie: fine camera work, excellent actors/actresses, good writing, beautiful music, exceptional directing and editing; but it is more than just a good movie. What makes it great is its relevance in combination with the above elements, all working together in harmony to achieve its intended purpose. Cabrini belongs in the category of cinematic art, of the kind the world has not seen in quite a while (and which I was afraid might have been lost). To me it had the feeling of staring at a painting in a grand museum—for a full two hours and twenty minutes!

Was it perfect? No. Would I change anything about it or have done something different. Probably. But that is not the point. The first point in any movie review is to simply address whether the reader should see the film or not. The answer is definitely yes. Besides being merely entertaining, Cabrini will nourish your soul and inspire you to good; and if you are so blessed, will give you confidence in the face of adversity, with Mother Cabrini serving as your role model. Not bad for the price of a roughly ten dollar ticket.

Mother Cabrini is much more than a role model, and in my opinion the film would fit easily within the super hero genre. The movie is inspirational in showing that we all have the potential to be (super) heroes. Specifically it shows how enormous hidden power is available to anyone who desires it, which God provides to those who ask. In addition it shows that there are essentially two types of people who inhabit this planet: those who fall down, and those who stay down (with Mother Cabrini belonging to the former category). Lastly, it illustrates that you must believe in order to be great, and that the consequence of loss of faith is mediocrity. All wonderful messages for any viewer to receive.

Is Cabrini good art? I certainly think so. In order to be considered as such, movies must be relevant and not merely entertaining. In the larger (big picture) sense, Cabrini demonstrates a phenomena that the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen (in-line to become a saint himself) aptly observed; that indifference appears to be narrowing in our world as is moves quickly towards opposite poles of good and evil, with those seeking to do good becoming better, and those seeking to do evil becoming worse. An important observation for all to appreciate.

While the movie provides a wonderful comment against racism and in support of the downtrodden, I see an even deeper meaning in the film; a beautiful pro-life message. Mother Cabrini finds the lost children who are at issue in the movie at a time when—and in places where— no one is even looking for them. These fragile humans from the movie are strikingly similar to the pre-born/unborn of our modern age. They need our help, as they are not able to help themselves.

Thank you to those who made this movie possible. It is my hope that Cabrini will inspire the next round of saints, which could potentially be those “Mother Cabrini’s” who fight to protect and save the lives of children who have already come into existence, but have not yet been born.

The Vision and Determination of a Saint by Gerhard Thielman

Biopic films typically feature a protagonist who engages and perseveres against great odds to achieve results thought unimaginable. Sometimes, the obstacles are the natural elements of the environment and the equipment employed to overcome them, such as First Man (2018) about astronaut Neil Armstrong and his training for the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Other times, events impose overwhelming unjust cruelty, such as 12 Years a Slave (2013) about Solomon Northup who was abducted and enslaved for a dozen years.

On occasion, the challenges lie in human nature and political resistance against moral reform, such as Amazing Grace (2006) about parliamentarian William Wilberforce who led the abolition of the British slave trade. Few such movies present a woman as the lead character, save perhaps Madame Curie (1943) about Nobel laureate Marie Curie focusing on her labor intensive discovery of radium, and A Time for Miracles (1980) about America’s first native born Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton who established a school and a convent.

This year, Angel Studios released Cabrini about Catholic missionary Francesca Cabrini who founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to support fellow Italian immigrants. Despite her frailty and tubercular lungs, she writes Pope Leo XIII for permission to build an orphanage in China. After an audience, her mission is granted, but to America to aid the poor in New York. The film depicts the hazards and grime of the city’s slums in Five Points upon her arrival in 1889, as well as the cruel bigotry by urban residents to Cabrini (Christina Dell’Anna) and her Italian nuns.

Opportunities come and setbacks ensue in overlapping cycles. The timing demonstrates deliberate and consistent pacing, and presents events in visual display rather than narrative or expository monologues. The direction, cinematography and acting provide compelling portraits of the characters involved. Much of the dialog is spoken in Italian (with subtitles), as would be expected for appropriate realism. Overall, upon entering a theater, I hoped with anticipation that the featured presentation will both succinctly inform and gratifyingly entertain. Cabrini delivers both.

And yet, Cabrini might attract controversy from the heavy emphasis on charity for poor immigrants, as well as the pointed sexism. Had the movie been produced and released four or five years ago, concerns over immigration would have been viewed as historical background, whereas in the current administration, this emphasis might resemble a lecture (some non-government organizations have stoked resentment from virtue signaling and human trafficking).

The film presents Mother Cabrini as a model heroine: determined, defiant, persistent, etc. Well my gosh, what else should we expect?  On the other hand (the title of Fay Wray’s memoir), the men presented range from despicable (the pimp) to the noble (the Times’ reporter) with various shades in between, such as the fictional Mayor Gould (John Lithgow). All such individuals present plausible personalities. If the film amplifies the insistent fortitude of Mother Cabrini in confronting her male adversaries, such attitude would be needed in that rough-and-tumble world. That’s why she accomplished so much in her lifetime. Vision, hard work and determination is often insufficient for achieving great accomplishments, but they are nonetheless necessary ingredients for success. Cabrini memorializes those virtues.

A Rare Catholic Femininity at its Best by J. Antonio Juarez

First off, from a cinematic perspective, hats off to Angel Studios and all of the other film production companies that worked to bring Mother Carbini’s story to life. From the slums of Five Points, to the sewers beneath the streets and the posh neighborhoods of the Upper West Side, the settings, the costumes and the attention to historical detail all vividly capture a New York City from a very different era.

In terms of what I (at first) and some of its viewers found off-putting about the film was Mother Cabrini’s portrayal as a modern day “boss-babe,” as she relentlessly castigated and prevailed over one patriarchal poobah after another in order to build her “empire of hope.” To be fair, the fact that the film was released on International Women’s Day combined with the toned-down portrayal of Mother Carbini’s Catholic faith, just shows that her fiery temperament was just another aspect of a film that seems to have been created for a general audience. This depiction of her might not have been so annoying if we have not been treated to a constant slew of shows and movies that have preached an anti-Marian and obnoxiously petulant form of feminism for the last decade or so. Which is why it is understandable that some might see Carbrini as yet another film where a beloved character or franchise is deconstructed with “the message.”

However, we are talking about a Catholic saint here, and the power of the Mother Cabrini’s living out the gospel cannot so easily be bent to mimic the “philosophy, and vain deceits” of the modern age. First off, make no mistake Mother Carbrini was a tough woman! Aside from enduring the lifelong effects of her tuberculosis, she lived in world where you had to be hard-working and resourceful to get by day by day, let alone in the Five Points slums of New York City.

Secondly, there is still a way in which Mother Carbrini’s butting heads with all of the powerful men in the film is in keeping with Sacred Scripture and our Catholic tradition. Think of the Parable of the Persistent Widow or St. Paul’s words that “my power is made perfect in weakness.” Like St. Paul, Mother Carbrini took all of the “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities” and demonstrated in the film that when she was weak, she was in fact strong in the Lord to do what needed to be done.

Also, her “bossy” behavior is in keeping with our Catholic tradition, as anyone who knows the history of Mother Angelica and her struggles with her superiors over the creation and control of EWTN could tell you. Moreover, her moral fortitude in the face of such recalcitrant men highlight another perennial reality in the spiritual life. The twelfth century abbess, saint and Doctor of the Church St. Hildegard of Bingen had many of the same trials as Mother Carbrini, but in her case specifically because she was a woman. Known as the “Sibyl of the Rhine” because of her visions and insight, she was in the habit of writing letters to the Pope and other church figures. In one of those letters she admits that her visions and writings were considered scandalous because they were coming from a woman, but she shot right back that her visions and writings had come about because the men in the Church were too  “effeminate” in there duties in teaching, preaching and living out their faith.

In this case the word “effeminate” is meant in the Thomistic sense (cf. Summa II-II, question 138, article 1) and refers to men who shrink from doing something because it is hard or will require a radical change in their disposition or habits. When you look at the film you will notice that in almost all cases, the problems that Mother Cabrini was trying to fix existed in large part because the men she encountered were averse to doing the hard work that was needed (and was their duty) to deal with.

Whether it was Fr. Morelli at the Five Points orphanage, the Pope, archbishop Corrigan, Disalvo the opera singer, the Italian senators, and of course mayor Gould, they all had one reason or another why they just didn’t want to get involved with Mother Carbini’s work. The fact that all of them (save Fr. Morelli) were surrounded by gatekeeping “yes-men” who filtered out people with what they considered trivial affairs, just shows how entrenched they all were in not manning-up to do their duty.

Mother Carbrini spoke no truer words in the film when she said, “Either we are bold or we die,” and in this sense, while the film’s portrayal of Mother Cabrini may be off putting, it should be taken in context as a rare form of Catholic femininity at its best. Especially since the film has so much more going for it that makes it well worth seeing.

Parting Words from The Everyman

Despite the various issues The Everyman's authors had with Cabrini, we would like to end by stressing the importance of supporting independently produced films or other creative projects. It is one thing to whinge about the dreck coming out of Hollywood, but another thing entirely to actually put your money where your moaning and groaning is and support people and companies that are doing their best to fight back against our culture's decadence. I myself (J. Antonio Juarez) witnessed the power of a crowd funded film in 2014 when I gave a mere $25 to support the making of the film Gosnell or the $50 I gave to Jonathan Pageau of The Symbolic World to produce his graphic novel God's Dog, and later its sequel, God's Dog: The Warrior.

The power of individuals giving small amounts either in support of the projects themselves or in seeing the movies put out by independent film companies like Angel Studios is more powerful than you can ever realize. So we will leave you with this last "be bold or die" message: Cabrini may not be the perfect film to you, but unless you are willing to provide a market for and support these independent film makers, that perfect film you may have in mind will never be made.

Photo Credit- The Epoch Times