Movie Review: Cabrini

One-liner: This exquisite, powerful, spirited, timely and well-acted biographical drama is undermined by its duration, stuffy dialogue and hagiographic tendencies.

Cabrini is a biographical drama based on the life of Frances Xavier Cabrini, an Italian-American Catholic religious sister who founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. While a relatively unknown public figure, Mother Cabrini’s far-reaching influence is still felt today – a major proponent of progress around the treatment of Italian immigrants in the United States. The first US citizen to be canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church in 1946, this powerful and vivid chronicle depicts her arrival in the West, her political efforts to redress Italian representation, and her ensuing campaign to provide housing and healthcare for hundreds of orphans.

Set in New York in the 1880s, Cabrini journeys with the determined Mother Cabrini who leads a group of nuns against hostility, prejudice and poverty. Released on International Women’s Day, there’s a special significance to this tie-in, owing to the battle of a woman in a male-dominated institution and society. Yet, it’s so much more in its attempt to address immigration issues, which make this a timely social justice film given the current political landscape. Facing prejudice over her ambition and capabilities, it’s an uphill climb for Cabrini who makes a valiant effort to change the future of Italian-Americans in the United States after witnessing their deplorable treatment and living conditions.

This is a film from director Alejandro Monteverde, who contributed to the story alongside screenwriter, Rod Barr. Known for Bella and Little Boy, it’s the suspenseful adventure drama Sound of Freedom that created the biggest stir for the director in its attempt to create awareness around child trafficking worldwide. Having a heart for the treatment of children, Cabrini serves as yet another dedicated entry for the Monteverde, delivering a dignified and lush depiction of the era with refreshing heft.

Much like Mother Cabrini, Monica Dell’Anna is relatively unknown but delivers a quietly powerful performance. Taking on the role of Mother Cabrini, who hasn’t really perforated popular culture as much as figures like Gandhi, Mandela and Teresa, the canvas is fairly blank. Determination is a driving force to her turn as Cabrini, injecting an indomitable yet peaceful spirit to the performance that compels the biographical drama as she encounters adversity and a relentless series of obstacles. Built primarily around Cabrini, the biopic welcomes the presence and gravitas brought forth by John Lithgow, David Morse and Giancarlo Giannini as Pope Leo XIII. Then, it’s Romana Maggiora Vergano who serves well as Vittoria, Cabrini’s friend and special project. Also noteworthy is the detail and scope of the film’s crowd scenes, which help create an immersive atmosphere.

cabrini movie

“Agree to disagree?”

Besides Dell’Anna’s unflinching performance, the other thing that becomes abundantly clear is Gorka G√≥mez Andreu’s cinematography, re-teaming with Monteverde after Sound of Freedom. Cabrini is exquisitely beautiful with every frame an artwork and the meticulous framing and production value shines through. This luscious feel to the photography can verge on manipulation as it aims for perfection… to the point of distraction. Carefully curated lighting and production design creates a consistency and quality to the visual aesthetic but these stylistic concerns almost take away from the story of Cabrini.

As dignified as it is, the character portrait is hand-wringingly earnest and respectful to the point of hagiography. The beauty of the filmmaking, mood-setting and solemn spirit have their place but the depiction of this little-known historical figure loses texture in its vehement protection of her sainthood. There’s grit to the heartbreaking conditions of Italian immigrants but Cabrini’s tireless fight and continual self-sacrifice make her a spiritual force rather than a flawed human being and multi-dimensional character. Dell’Anna’s nuanced performance contributes to Cabrini’s sense of authenticity and spirit but there’s a slow-creeping hollowness to this prestige picture that requires an extra level of patience when you consider its 2.5 hour run time.

Filmgoers who appreciate important, powerful, well-acted and spirited biographical stories with strong production values won’t take too much issue with Cabrini. Its dignified chronicle, film finesse and timely commentary have value and speak to overarching concerns in an earnest manner. Unfortunately, as picture perfect and poised as it is the cotton wool treatment of Mother Cabrini and “every frame is an artwork” ambition create a contrived feel that gradually resonates throughout the film. This aspect is further compounded by the dialogue, which often comes across as filler when silence would’ve carried more meaning. Still, Cabrini does unearth a curious time in American history, aided by its noble intentions and clear passion for its vision. While it may not be all-consuming, it remains a handsomely mounted, important and well-acted biographical drama.

The bottom line: Noble

splingometer 6