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‘Cabrini’ extols the virtues of faith, inspiration, accomplishment

“Cabrini” (2024). Cast: Cristiana Dell’Anna, John Lithgow, David Morse, Giancarlo Gioannini, Romana Maggiora Vergano, Federico Ielapi, Liam Campora, Patrick “Patch” Darragh, Jeremy Bobb, Rolando Villazón, Giacomo Rocchini, Montserrat Espadalé, Giampiero Judica, Federico Castelluccio, Andrew Polk. Director: Aléjandro Monteverde. Screenplay: Rod Barr and Aléjandro Monteverde. Web site. Trailer.

Stories about those who give their all for others are truly inspiring. They set examples worthy of emulation and can help to motivate us to do more, including under circumstances where we may have thought that there was little we could do to help. Undertaking these measures can indeed be daunting – perhaps even overwhelming – but, when we see a need and are sufficiently motivated, there’s no telling what we can accomplish. Such is the case of an empowered, undeterred woman determined to carry out her mission, as seen in the new film biography, “Cabrini.”

In 1887, Mother Francesca Xavier Cabrini (Cristiana Dell’Anna) began her effort to launch an ambitious project – creating a Roman Catholic mission to China. She travelled from her native Lombardy to the Vatican to seek the approval of Pope Leo XIII (Giancarlo Giannini). But, before she could even make her impassioned pitch, she had to get past the Pontiff’s gatekeeper, Fr. Morelli (Giampiero Judica), who didn’t believe she could fulfill her goal. For starters, the skeptical cleric doubted that a sister from rural Italy would be able to pull off such a grand venture in such a foreign and faraway location. It didn’t help that she was a woman, either. He dismissively rejected her proposal and denied her the opportunity for an audience with the Holy Father. He consequently encouraged her to turn heels and go home, returning to her more familiar duties as head of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, running its day school for orphans and foundlings and teaching courses in embroidery. But Mother Cabrini was not about to let Morelli’s narrow-minded attitude stand in her way. She refused to back down and managed to catch the ear of the Pope, who had heard of her reputation for getting things done, subsequently agreeing to meet with her.

When Cabrini and the Pontiff conferred, she enthusiastically made a case for launching her mission to China. The Pope saw value in her plan, but he was not sure that she was ready for such a substantial challenge and offered a counterproposal. He suggested that she move ahead with her venture but in a different locale – New York. He believed that there was a pressing need to offer vital assistance to the flood of Italian immigrants who were relocating to America, a supposed land of opportunity that wasn’t living up to its billing, partly because of a lack of economic and employment prospects and partly because of the extreme prejudice that the new arrivals encountered in the so-called promised land. As the Holy Father advised, Mother Cabrini should look “not to the East, but to the West.” And, if matters proceeded well in New York, he offered hope that one day she might be able to proceed with her original plan.

Mother Francesca Cabrini (Cristiana Dell’Anna) embarks on an ambitious venture to set up a global network of charitable institutions for those in need, starting in New York’s deplorable Five Points neighborhood, as seen in the inspiring new biopic, “Cabrini.” Photo courtesy of Angel Studios.

Despite the Pope’s conditional approval, Mother Cabrini decided to take him up on his offer. And so, in 1889, Mother Cabrini and a group of her sisters crossed the Atlantic to New York. But, upon arrival, she was met with challenges from the outset. She was to assume management of a failing orphanage in the city’s notorious Five Points neighborhood, home to many of New York’s Italian immigrants. The residents endured deplorable conditions, facing ordeals related to poverty, disease, filth and immorality. Cabrini and her entourage discovered this on their first night in the neighborhood, where they witnessed the degrading exploitation of a local prostitute, Vittoria (Romana Maggiora Vergano), and the brazen cruelty against her by her pimp, Geno (Giacomo Rocchini). However, with Vittoria’s assistance, the new arrivals were able to secure a place to stay to get them off the streets, even if it was in a brothel.

Shortly thereafter, the sisters earnestly began renovation of the orphanage, a challenging task, to be sure. They also got a firsthand look at the prevailing conditions on the streets of Five Points, such as the unabashed thievery engaged in by the area’s orphaned and abandoned children, like young Paolo (Federico Ielapi) and his teenage brother, Enzo (Liam Campora). Cabrini quickly discovered that she and her cohorts were going to need help, and so she decided to pursue the assistance that the Pope had helped to set up for her, help to be provided by Archbishop Corrigan (David Morse) of New York’s Roman Catholic archdiocese.

In meeting the Archbishop, however, Mother Cabrini found herself faced with the same kind of resistance she encountered with Fr. Morelli. Corrigan offered little encouragement and even went so far as to suggest that the sisters board a boat bound for Italy. Again, though, Cabrini wouldn’t hear of it, refusing to back down. In doing so, however, she was forced into accepting the conditions laid down by the Archbishop, most of which seriously restricted her ability to seek meaningful aid from New York’s Roman Catholic benefactors. She was informed, for example, that she could not solicit financial aid from Americans, meaning that, if she were to seek such support, it would have to come from the Italian immigrant community – most of whom had virtually no money to spare.

Helping poor immigrant orphans like Paolo (Federico Ielapi, left) is an important aspect of the mission of Mother Francesca Cabrini (Cristiana Dell’Anna, right), as depicted in writer-director Aléjandro Monteverde’s latest, “Cabrini.” Photo courtesy of Angel Studios.

These circumstances forced Cabrini to get creative in her undertakings, which, to her credit, she did. Before long, she managed to get the orphanage up and running, securing the financial and logistical assistance needed to further her goals. This was quite a challenge given the conditions under which she was operating, including her own failing health – respiratory issues brought on by a near-drowning accident she experienced in her youth. Nevertheless, despite these impediments, she carried on to seek the fulfillment of her goals.

Cabrini’s success was welcomed by her Italian peers, especially when they could see what magic she could work. At the same time, however, this success was met with opposition from public officials, most notably Mayor Gould (John Lithgow), whose prejudicial view of Italians was inflicted on Cabrini as much as it was on members of the immigrant community. He routinely harassed Cabrini for city code violations at her mission’s properties, a crusade aggressively led by various agency inspectors and Deputy Mayor Jenkins (Andrew Polk), imposing heavy fines and threatening Cabrini with shutting down her operations. But, considering how far she had managed to come with limited resources, the good Mother continually fought back, routinely finding creative ways to respond to her challenges and calling out officials when justified.

Moreover, Mother Cabrini was not alone in these fights. She was adept at recruiting allies to her cause. Vittoria, for instance, became a staunch backer of the sisters, leaving behind her life in Five Points to offer everyday logistical assistance. In providing the health care that her constituents so desperately needed, she sought the aid of the physician who treated her, Dr. Murphy (Patrick “Patch” Darragh), a kindly Samaritan who regularly supplied helpful clinical and practical advice. Securing financial aid from well-connected donors was often difficult, but, through her persuasiveness, Cabrini managed to win over an accomplished opera singer, Maestro DiSalvo (Rolando Villazón), and an influential legislator, Senator Badio (Federico Castelluccio), back home in her native Italy. And, to help get out the word about the plight of the city’s Italian immigrant community, she convinced New York Times reporter Teddy Galloway (Jeremy Bobb) to write about their circumstances, articles that raised awareness of the need for public support to raise funds and combat the shamelessly bigoted policies of Mayor Gould and his minions.

To launch her plan for establishing a global network of charitable institutions, Mother Francesca Cabrini (Cristiana Dell’Anna, back to camera) travels from her native Lombardy to the Vatican to meet with Pope Leo XIII to seek his support, as seen in writer-director Aléjandro Monteverde’s new biopic, “Cabrini.” Photo courtesy of Angel Studios.

Despite the odds being against her on numerous fronts, Cabrini succeeded in her mission in New York, an effort that would spread far and wide across America and overseas – even in China. And, despite pessimistic prognostications about her health (initially estimated at no more than three years), she lived on for decades to see many of her objectives fulfilled, some of which were carried on by her followers after her death in Chicago in 1917. After her passing, she would eventually become canonized as the first American saint in 1946. It’s quite a record of accomplishment for someone who was once readily dismissed by those who didn’t know her – or the depth of her inspiration, creativity and faith.

Given what Mother Cabrini was able to accomplish, it’s obvious that she had an uncanny ability to envision what she wanted to accomplish and to make it happen in finished form. Her beliefs in her ideas and herself, backed by a tremendous wellspring of faith, were integral to the fulfillment of her objectives. In essence, the outcomes she attained embodied the principles of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these intangible resources are responsible for the manifestation of the existence we experience. It’s unclear whether the good Mother was aware of this school of thought or called it by this name, but, considering what she wrought, it’s apparent she was familiar with the concepts underlying it and knew how to work with them to achieve the intended results. And what results they were.

As a member of a religious order, many would contend that it should go without saying that she had a tremendous sense of faith to draw upon in her endeavors. And, even though she likely viewed her practices in these areas in a religious context, the notions underlying them were virtually identical whether expressed in theological or metaphysical terms. So, regardless of what one might call these ideas, the basis behind them in each case was the same (indeed, you say tomato, I say…).

The deplorable conditions of New York’s Five Points neighborhood, home to many of the city’s Italian immigrant community in the late Nineteenth Century, often resulted in disease and death for many simply trying to exist, as seen in the dramatic new biopic, “Cabrini.” Photo courtesy of Angel Studios.

Thus, no matter which context one uses to refer to these principles, the basic tenets that make them work are essentially identical. For instance, fundamentally speaking, the materialization of one’s envisioned outcomes is an act of faith driven by the belief that they can be made manifest through a collaboration between us and God (or the Universe, All That Is, Source or whatever other term best suits you). This divine partnership is at the heart of how our reality comes into being. And the stronger the faith in that notion, the more likely that the results will appear as hoped for. Mother Cabrini obviously understood this and made it the platform for the miracles she brought into being.

In a similar vein, it should be noted that bringing about these manifestations is essentially an act of creation, the divinely inspired practice that underlies the appearance of everything in our existence. It accounts for the transformation of the intangible into the tangible, with our beliefs providing the juice to realize the finished state of these materializations.

In addition to the collaboration that takes place between us and our divine partner, it’s also often facilitated by the collaboration between us and our familiars, working together in an act of co-creation. This is accomplished through the mutual intents and acts of us and others, evidenced here by Mother Cabrini’s collaborations with allies like Vittoria, Dr. Murphy, Maestro DiSalvo, Senator Badio, Mr. Galloway, Pope Leo, and, of course, the countless volunteers and supporters who backed her in her efforts. Even her so-called “enemies,” such as Fr. Morelli, Archbishop Corrigan, and Mayor Gould and his lackies, served as backhanded collaborators in this process. By imposing roadblocks in her path, they kept Mother Cabrini focused on her goals, prompting her to remain vigilant and determined in seeing through on her various undertakings.

Upon arrival in New York, Mother Francesca Cabrini (Cristiana Dell’Anna, left) meets with resistance from Archbishop Corrigan (David Morse, right) in her attempts to take over a failing orphanage in the city’s notorious Five Points neighborhood, as depicted in the new biopic, “Cabrini.” Photo courtesy of Angel Studios.

To further facilitate the fulfillment of her goals, Cabrini also relied heavily on her sense of creativity to get things done. Because she faced many limitations in her work, she needed to think outside the box, employing unconventional means to achieve her objectives. In doing so, she was able to skirt many of the restrictions placed upon her yet still satisfy the requirements integral to the realization of her vision. She frequently rose to the occasion on this front, too, such as making her mission in New York succeed as a stepping stone on the way to her organization eventually fulfilling her dream of establishing a mission in China. Keeping an open mind in such matters is crucial to become an effective manifestation practitioner. And that, in turn, depends on recognizing the infinite belief options open to us at any time when it comes to devising the means to see our dreams come true.

All of the foregoing is indicative of Mother Cabrini’s reason for being – living out her destiny and practicing her value fulfillment, the act of being her best, truest, most authentic self for the benefit of herself and others. So many individuals in need benefitted from her tireless efforts in New York and elsewhere, and they have much to be thankful for when it comes to her determination, commitment and diligence. She lived her truth and believed in her convictions, and it clearly showed in the results.

Providing care, comfort and compassion to the world’s downtrodden is undoubtedly a noble, if exhausting and often-frustrating, cause, especially when pleas for help go ignored or fall on deaf ears. Yet, every so often, someone comes along who tirelessly keeps on fighting for those less fortunate, as was the case with Mother Cabrini. She successfully provided the medical care, housing and general support for those in need, raising awareness of their plight and fighting for their welfare. Writer-director Aléjandro Monteverde’s latest presents a detailed profile of a woman who wouldn’t give up at a time when the deck was stacked against her, both on the bases of her gender and nationality, as well as (in some cases) as a representative of the Church. The picture’s superb production design, fine period piece production values and gorgeous cinematography lend much to this release, as do the performances of Dell’Anna and Lithgow, along with a host of supporting characters. Admittedly, this slightly overlong offering has occasional problems with pacing, monodimensional character development, overdramatic elements (particularly in the soundtrack) and an underdeveloped back story. At the same time, however, “Cabrini” tells an inspiring and uplifting tale of someone who accomplished a lot but hasn’t really received the attention she’s due. This film helps to make up for that oversight while reminding us all that we can play a part in fulfilling her dream of genuinely creating an empire of hope for the world.

The prejudicial attitude of New York Mayor Gould (John Lithgow) against the Italian immigrant community hampers the efforts of Mother Francesca Cabrini in her efforts to establish much-needed charitable organizations for the poor, as seen in writer-director Aléjandro Monteverde’s new film biography, “Cabrini.” Photo courtesy of Angel Studios.

As much as I enjoyed the message and sentiment of this film, however, I must take issue with an important aspect of it. In essence, “Cabrini” tells an engaging and inspiring story, but, to a great degree, that’s just what it is – a story. In its defense, the picture does a fine job of accurately detailing Cabrini’s many accomplishments in fighting prejudice, aiding the immigrant community, and establishing much-needed hospitals and orphanages both here and abroad. And, when it comes to telling a fact-based tale from the distant past, it’s understandable how a film must come up with dialogue to capture the nature of the circumstances, given that it’s unlikely anyone still alive was around when the depicted events took place. However, in my view, as someone who was trained and practiced as a journalist and historian, it’s incumbent on a project’s writing team to strive for scrupulous precision in crafting the narrative, an area in which “Cabrini” fails on many fronts according to what has been outlined in published reports. When a movie resorts to changing the facts of certain situations, creating fictitious characters who are composites of historic figures and making up others who are apparently complete fabrications, those steps cross a significant line, veering from the realm of biography and slipping into the field of fiction, something this offering does on more than a few occasions. I can forgive exaggeration and embellishment, but out-and-out invention is something else entirely. I’m disappointed that the filmmakers felt the need to do this with this release, as it weakens the project’s credibility and detracts from its other fine attributes. Viewers should bear this in mind while watching this film. Indeed, to paraphrase an old journalism aphorism, don’t believe everything you see on the movie screen. The film is nearing the end of its theatrical run and should be available for streaming in the near future.

When our backs are up against the wall, it may be tempting to give in. But, thankfully, not everyone feels that way, and Mother Cabrini was one of them. She left an indelible mark on the world and the many people she and her followers touched. If ever there were someone who could truly be called a saint, it was her – and now her story allows us all to see the truth in that.

Copyright © 2024, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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