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'Cabrini' film tells story of saint with great faith

Mother Cabrini faced opposition when she first came to New York to serve the poor

Published: April 23, 2024   
Cristiana Dell’Anna stars in a scene from the movie “Cabrini.” The OSV News classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. (OSV News photo/Angel Studios)

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini faced life-threatening health struggles and a crippling fear of water due to a near-drowning experience. 

And yet, she founded an order of missionary sisters tending to the poor and orphaned in dangerous parts of New York City and around the world, crossing the Atlantic Ocean 24 times in the process. She founded 67 hospitals, orphanages, schools and other charitable institutions up until the time of her passing in 1917.

"Cabrini" director Alejandro Monteverde was drawn in by the story of this saint, described by a speaker at the opening of one of her hospitals as "a little woman," who stood barely 5 feet tall, but held her own in eloquence and grit.

"There was so much against her and to see what she was able to build and to build for others," he told OSV News, "that in itself, caught my attention."

Monteverde was "shocked" as a Catholic that he didn't know her story prior to being approached about the film, especially given the fact that she was the first American saint.

The film shows Mother Cabrini's efforts to go to China, which are met with Pope Leo XIII (Giancarlo Giannini) telling her instead to go "not to the East, but to the West" to New York City to minister to Italian immigrants and orphans who faced extreme poverty and discrimination.

Italian actress Cristiana Dell'Anna convincingly portrays Mother Cabrini's determination as she fights to build an orphanage and hospital despite discrimination, opposition from Church hierarchy and politicians, as well as her own health struggles.

Dell'Anna told OSV News that the role became personal for her and she could relate to Mother Cabrini's perseverance amid obstacles. 

"We all have fears of some sort," she said. "That could connect me to her and the difficulties that she had to overcome."

In preparing for the role, Dell'Anna read a collection of Mother Cabrini's letters, which showed her how "poetic" she was. 

"She came across as a very sensitive and sensible person," who was also surprisingly "outspoken," Dell'Anna said.

Bronwen McShea, a historian and author who also teaches for the Augustine Institute, spoke with OSV News about the film's historical accuracy. McShea, who has a doctorate in early modern European history from Yale, has a section on Mother Cabrini in her forthcoming book "Women of the Church: What Every Catholic Should Know" with Ignatius Press.

She said the depiction of the difficulties Mother Cabrini faced in New York City and the "overall arc" of the film is "mostly accurate." She found the movie to be visually stunning and well-acted. As a New Yorker herself, she said the film "recreated life in Five Points and other neighborhoods in New York rather well."

One of the first obstacles Mother Cabrini faced in New York was a chilly welcome from the local authorities. Archbishop Michael Corrigan of New York, who was archbishop from 1885 to 1902, initially asked Mother Cabrini to return to Italy, and she reminded him that she was there at Pope Leo XIII's behest.

A real letter from Archbishop Corrigan to Pope Leo XIII in 1886, a few years prior to Mother Cabrini's arrival, shows the prejudices and the tense politics of the time.

Monteverde noted that a scene in which the fictional character of New York City Mayor Gould (John Lithgow) tells Mother Cabrini she would have made "an excellent man" was inspired by real comments made about her , including Italian Minister Francesco Saverio Nitti who referred to her as a "statesman."

While the film mostly focuses on Mother Cabrini's work, a few scenes show her in prayer at pivotal moments. Monteverde said that's because "her life is the ultimate prayer," and there is power in seeing someone pray through their actions.

The movie also features Mother Cabrini's motto from Scripture, "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13).

"Cabrini"  was released by Angel Studios into theaters March 8.

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