Producers: Leo Severino and Jonathan Sanger   Director: Alejandro Monteverde   Screenplay: Rod Barr   Cast: Cristiana Dell’Anna, David Morse, Romana Maggiora Vergano, Federico Ielapi, Virginia Bocelli, Rolando Villazón, Giancarlo Giannini, John Lithgow, Patrick “Patch” Darragh, Liam Campora, Jeremy Bobb, Federico Castelluccio, Giampiero Judica, Giacomo Rocchini, Andrew Polk, Mina Severino and Eugenia Forteza   Distributor: Angel Studios

Grade: C+

Writer-director Alejandro Monteverde enjoyed enormous, unexpected success with his last film, “Sound of Freedom” (2022), a tale of the battle against sex trafficking that was embraced by the evangelical community while engendering considerable controversy.  While it’s doubtful that his follow-up, about the Italian-born nun who became the first U.S. citizen to be canonized by the Catholic Church, will attract as large an audience, “Cabrini” is an almost endearingly old-fashioned biographical drama about a major religious figure–earnest and well-intentioned but also solemnly reverential, rather stodgy, and often dramatically cliched.

It makes no effort, moreover, to be a full biography.  Though the film offers a few flashbacks to Francesca Cabrini’s youth when, as played by Mina Severino, she is shown nearly drowning and being diagnosed as unlikely to survive long because of her frailty, it concentrates on the late 1880s and early 1890s, when the nun (Cristiana Dell’Anna), then in her thirties and having founded a religious institute in her native Lombardy, began her work of establishing the global network of charitable orphanages, hospitals and schools that, as a documentary-style summing-up informs us at the close, won her much admiration and renown by the time of her death in 1917.

In this telling, Cabrini approaches Pope Leo XIII (Giancarlo Giannini) in 1887 with a project for missionary action in the Far East.  He responds with a suggestion that she concentrate her efforts instead among the teeming Italian immigrant community in New York City, a group mired in poverty and treated with contempt. Two years later she and six companions arrive in America to revive an orphanage in the notorious Five Points area abandoned by parish priest Father Morelli (Giampiero Judica).  New York’s Archbishop Michael Corrigan (David Morse) does not welcome them, fearing their work might disrupt the delicate balance he’s developed with the powers in the city, including the mayor—here a fictional fellow named Gould (John Lithgow) rather than the historical Hugh J. Grant.  But Cabrini persists despite Corrigan’s objections, and eventually wins him over. 

Rod Barr’s screenplay mingles historical fact and dramatically-fueled fiction in depicting how Cabrini’s vision succeeds against formidable obstacles—beginning not just with Corrigan’s resistance but brutal opposition from some criminal elements in the Italian populace of Manhattan, represented here by a greedy pimp named Geno (Giacomo Rocchini).  He objects violently when the nun connects with Vittoria (Romana Maggiora Vergano), one of his prostitutes who becomes a volunteer in the orphanage.  That story thread is connected with another—Cabrini’s taking in the abandoned children who roam the city streets, represented by pals Enzo (Liam Campora) and Paolo (Federico Ielapi); the latter takes matters—and the gun his father had used to commit suicide—into his own hands when Geno threatens the nuns.

Any florid dramatic license that Barr takes in such matters—and in the depiction of a fund-raising Italian Festival for which she recruits an opera star named DiSalvo (Rolando Villazón)–is mitigated by his depiction of the practicality with which the determined nun confronts the forces that could undermine her work.  Her persistence eventually leads Corrigan to help arrange her acquisition of a property outside the city to allow for an expansion of her orphanage, and a kindly Irish doctor named Murphy (Patrick “Patch” Darragh) to aid in the establishment of Columbus Hospital in 1892 (although, admittedly, an arson incident here used to dramatize opposition to its founding is relocated from a later one in Chicago).  And her political savvy is demonstrated by her enlistment of a New York Times reporter (Jeremy Bobb) to publicize the deplorable conditions in Five Points, by her skill in confronting a powerful Italian politician (Federico Castelluccio) to secure political funding for her endeavors, and by her outwitting of the bigoted Gould by threatening him with the votes of newly-naturalized Italian-Americans.

Her interchange with Gould, in fact, encapsulates one of the film’s obvious themes—the recognition of the power of women.  Cabrini was always treated condescendingly because of her gender—when Gould, using words that were once actually spoken to her in a different context, remarks admiringly that she would have made a good man, the implication is blunt.  “Cabrini” is, in part, a feminist story—one whose message will still resonate for many within the present-day Catholic Church.

But there’s another way in which the film addresses contemporary socio-political reality: it’s a plea for the acceptance of immigrants, who, it argues, should be treated with love and respect rather than dismissal and abuse.  Anti-immigrant attitudes focused on the latest group of European arrivals, the Italians, in the late nineteenth century.  But the film implies that such attitudes are no less repugnant today when directed against others. 

Whether these themes will find the same warm welcome among those who applauded “Sound of Freedom” is an open question, but there’s no doubt that Monteverde has expended a great deal of effort to express them.  “Cabrini” is a handsome film, with an elegant production design (Carlos Laguna) and period costumes (Alisha Silverstein), and visual effects (supervised by Brian Battles) that are instrumental in recreating the era on a non-blockbuster budget. Gorka Gómez Andreu’s widescreen cinematography adds a painterly luster to the images, and though F. Brian Scofield’s editing is stately in the extreme, it suits the director’s vision.

Performances are of a piece with the seriousness of the piece.  Dell’Anna makes a committed yet controlled heroine, while Vergano and Ielapi stand out as witnesses and helpers in her work.  Monteverde has been especially canny in his choice of well-known actors to play major supporters and adversaries.  Giannini is convincing as a serenely avuncular but progressive Leo XIII, and Morse as a cautiously pragmatic prelate trying to maintain stability for his diocese in a society still riven by anti-Catholic bias.  As for Lithgow, he seems to be having a ball playing a nasty, ruthless politician quick to compromise when he calculates the odds are stacked against him.

“Cabrini” falls unquestionably within the faith-based genre, but it’s really a throwback to the sort of religious films that Hollywood made in the forties and fifties, and it might not appeal to its target audience in the way other recent pictures in the category have done. Meanwhile the subject matter might turn off more secular viewers.  It will be interesting to see how it fares in today’s cinematic marketplace.