‘Cabrini’ Review: A Dull Depiction of a Resolute Italian Nun’s Struggle for Immigrants

The filmmaker behind the divisive ‘Sound of Freedom’ returns with a dreary period drama set in New York, seemingly championing the dignity of immigrants who have embraced America as their new homeland.

CABRINI, Cristiana Dell'Anna, as Frances Xavier Cabrini (left), 2024. © Angel Studios / Courtesy Everett Collection

Hailed by Q-Anon conspiracy adherents, last year’s “Sound of Freedom” amassed over $250 million globally, thrusting Mexican-born filmmaker Alejandro Monteverde back into the limelight nearly two decades after his overly sentimental 2006 debut “Bella” garnered the People’s Choice Award at TIFF. Known for his unabashedly Christian conservative viewpoints, Monteverde returns with a plodding biopic centered on Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini (played by Cristiana Dell’Anna), an Italian nun who challenged both the Catholic Church and American establishments to aid her fellow Italians in New York City during the late 1800s.

Cabrini’s tumultuous childhood, marked by a near-drowning incident, becomes a pivotal moment that propels her forward, defying expectations and patriarchal constraints. Surviving beyond her prognosis of tuberculosis, she endeavors to challenge any notion of her exclusion from male-dominated spheres. After a meeting with Pope Leo XIII (portrayed by Giancarlo Giannini), who admires her unwavering dedication, she is tasked with venturing across the Atlantic to offer assistance and solace to predominantly illiterate Italian immigrants, especially children living amidst deplorable conditions, grappling with widespread xenophobia and inadequate healthcare services.

None of the young nuns accompanying Cabrini on her mission are portrayed with any distinct personality traits. The film fails to delve into their feelings towards Cabrini and her endeavors, or provide insight into how they came to join her cause. Instead, Vittoria (played by Romana Maggiora Vergano), a young prostitute residing in the slums of Five Points, assumes the role of apprentice, while Cabrini steadfastly opposes Archbishop Corrigan (portrayed by David Morse) and governmental authorities.

While Cabrini’s admirable deeds, such as establishing hospitals, undoubtedly impacted the lives of many impoverished individuals during a time when America’s hostility towards immigrants targeted different demographics than it does today, Monteverde and co-writer Rod Barr primarily focus on repetitive verbal confrontations. Despite the film’s extensive runtime, they fail to construct a nuanced portrayal of this heroic figure, revealing little about her humanity or her spiritual connection. The on-screen portrayal offers limited insight into Cabrini’s character.

Dell’Anna’s consistently mortified expression effectively conveys how the religious woman persevered despite her physical frailty to carry on her work. Occasionally, the actress delivers compelling moments of dramatic intensity, showcasing her talent. Her moderately convincing performance, along with that of most supporting actors, distinguishes “Cabrini” from other faith-based films where exaggerated theatricality can undermine the storytelling, making it seem like poorly crafted propaganda. However, Dell’Anna’s portrayal is hindered by the abundance of sanctimonious dialogue she must deliver, particularly in scenes where Cabrini is depicted persuading wealthy individuals to support her cause.

The monotony extends to the film’s visual aesthetics. Cinematographer Gorka Gómez Andreu saturates nearly every frame with artificially intense sunlight streaming through windows, aiming to impose an angelic atmosphere on the narrative. However, this approach feels contrived, highlighting the film’s limitations in production quality despite its ambitious scope. The priority here seems to be achieving technical proficiency rather than striving for cinematic excellence. As long as the film meets the standards for a theatrical release, artistic merit appears to take a back seat.

It’s almost as if Monteverde seeks to appeal to the fringes of the political spectrum by positioning himself and his work as exemplars of what “good immigrants” can achieve when they reject progressive ideals and align themselves with religiously-affiliated fascism.

The director’s political views are closely intertwined with his filmmaking, especially considering his producer and friend Eduardo Verastegui’s emergence as a far-right figure in Mexican politics, advocating strongly for pro-life and anti-LGBT positions. Monteverde himself has been featured in videos on American Christian TV shows, where he asserts that the media is polluting young minds. Both Monteverde and Verastegui seem to view their work as a form of resistance against Hollywood’s influence.

However, it raises the question of whether their intended audience — potentially those with white supremacist, “anti-woke,” and likely anti-immigrant viewpoints — would extend the empathy the film might evoke for Italian children of the same race and faith to immigrant children at the southern border fleeing poverty and violence, or to those suffering in Gaza. This seems doubtful. Even “Sound of Freedom,” which garnered attention from the far-right, did not result in a positive shift in attitudes towards immigration, despite depicting Latin American victims of child trafficking.

Despite Cabrini’s vision of “an empire of hope,” Monteverde and his team aspire to one of influence. However, regardless of the filmmakers’ intentions, the film’s most significant flaw is its lack of vitality and aesthetic blandness. Positioned between the sensationalist content of the “God’s Not Dead” series and anything resembling compelling filmmaking, “Cabrini” occupies a space of mediocrity.

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