Saturday, March 09, 2024

Review of Angel Studios' Cabrini

Tonight I went and saw Cabrini with my teenage daughter. I just got back from the theater and am fulfilling a promise I made on the Unam Sanctam Facebook page to post a review of it. This is going to be long, so I ask your forgiveness for the extensiveness, but I have a lot to say here.

Let's start with the things that are easy to praise...

The visuals. The set-pieces, costuming and overall ambience was superb. I was constantly impressed with how well the film portrayed the late 19th century; everything from the furniture down to the gas lights was spot on. There was a crusty, creaking realism to everything. All if it looked completely authentic; if there were CGI sets in the film, they did a fantastic job of hiding them. I was fairly certain that everything I was seeing was real, and that is a tremendous accomplishment; aesthetically this film looked better than a big budget Marvel film with twenty times the budget. So, nice work on the visual, Angel Studios!

The cinematography was also lovely. I was continually impressed with the quality of the shots and the way the photographers chose to shoot certain scenes. I was quite happy to find that, despite the dreary scenery of much of old New York, the film's color palette was vibrant and bright. For some ridiculous reason, modern films have a regrettable tendency to throw a layer of dull grays or blues over their shots (the recent disaster that was Ridley Scott's Napoleon had a putrid dull filter over everything; I also remember that Solo: A Star Wars Story was so shaded by a blue filter that many scenes were unintelligbly dark). Thankfully, Cabrini went back to the tried and true use of natural light, relying on filters only when the scene really called for it (like the dark sewer scenes). This was a real delight to see after watching so many artificially darkened films over the last several years. The particular shots the director chose to take were also superb; excellent use of blocking and interplay of the characters with the scenery. From a purely technical perspective, whoever made these decisions knew exactly what they were doing. I don't know what the budget for Cabrini was, but it didn't feel low budget at all and thus avoided a problem that has plagued religious films in the past.

The score was also solid. I was so pleased they didn't take the cheap and easy way out by following the modern fad of simply taking an old classic rock song, slowing it down, and treating it like a soundtrack. There's lots of original music here, classical and operatic, deployed masterfully throughout the film for maximum effect at the most emotional moments. Well done here.

I also liked hearing all the Italian; I'd say half of the film was in Italian with subtitles. This was such a nice touch as Italian is such a lovely language to listen to (I may be biased because I am Sicilian, but it's true : )

I cannot speak to the historical accuracy of the film, as I am not well-versed in the history of St. Frances Cabrini, but this is not particularly important to me in a film of this nature. There's too many critics who dump on historical films because the historical details aren't exactly right. This has never bothered me; I don't care that William Wallace never actually impregnated the Queen of England per Braveheart, nor that Emperor Commodus wasn't killed in the arena; and I don't care whether St. Frances Cabrini ever addressed the Italian Senate or knew an opera star. The primary purpose of a movie is to be entertaining, so my judgement of Cabrini is based on whether is entertained me, not whether it was perfectly accurate. To be sure, sometimes historical inaccuracies can be so egregious as to ruin a movie (for example, if they'd have made Frances Cabrini a black lesbian); but even in these cases, the reason it would ruin the film is because it would destroy my suspension of disbelief and hence be unentertaining. Whatever liberties were taken with Cabrini were within the bounds of what is typically acceptable for artistic license. 

Was I entertained? Yes, to be sure. But we must understand that different types of movies go for different types of entertainment. In a horror film, one is entertained if it provokes sufficient anxiety. In a grand adventure like Raiders of the Lost Ark, you want to experience a sense of excitement. In a historical drama like Cabrini, what you want is inspiration—you want to root for the protagonist, sharing their joys and weeping at their sorrows. Personally, Cabrini hit the nail on the head for me here. I teared up a couple of times throughout the movie and got quiver-lip towards the end. It was sufficiently engaging and inspiring to touch me on an emotional level. And it successfully inspired me to consider how I could better serve the poor. Its success here is because it prudently followed the classical three act model. You have the first act establishing the conflict (Cabrini struggling to fulfill her vocation in the slums of New York), the second act's rising action (Cabrini starts making progress, building new institutions, and the stakes get higher), then the set back at the end of the second act (opposition from the city of New York leads to her project almost taking entirely), and the third act resolution (Cabrini succeeds against these new odds and wins the New York government over to her side). This is basic storytelling, and it is done well here. As with the cinematographgy, the storytelling was refreshing after the last few years of muddled messes Hollywood has been feeding us.

Okay, but you probably don't give a crap about cinematography, story structure, and music. You probably only care about the movie through a pietistical or theological lens and whether it was woke. Which, if that is the case, fair enough (but you're not really interested in film-qua-film is that's all you care about, but to each their own). Let us consider these in turn.

First, let's talk about Cristiana Dell'Anna as Frances Cabrini. I liked this casting overall and I could definitely identify with her as Cabrini; in fact, the work ethic they give to Mother Cabrini in the film very much mirrors my own approach to life in general, so it resonated with me deeply. However, in a critique I'm sure our feminist friends will not appreciate, I wish Dell'Anna's Cabrini would have smiled more. The film did an excellent job portraying her struggles, anxiety, and poor health, but I wish they would have included more scenes of her smiling, laughing, and enjoying the company of her orphans and sisters. For a film about a woman's passion for orphans, I don't think there was a single scene of her spending time with her orphans. There is one street urchin named Paolo she has a few scenes with, but other than that we see very little of her with her children. There are too many scenes of her visiting the halls of power to ask for money and no scenes of her doing things like playing stickball in the street with her orphans, or teaching them in a classroom. The one motherly relationship she forms with anyone is with an adult character, a reformed prostitute named Vittoria. In order to really sell us on Cabrini as a caring mother to these orphans, we simply needed more scenes of her happy in their company. Imagine a film about St. John Bosco that barely showed him interacting with his boys, or a film about St. Francis that never showed him enjoying the beauty of the natural world and you will understand what an omission this is. 

Nevertheless, what they did choose to have Cristiana Dell'Anna do, she did well. Frances Cabrini's iron determination was communicated thoroughly; the supporting performances by David Morse and John Lithgow were solid as well (even if Lithgow as the cigar-smoking Mayor Gould did descend into schlock territory now and then, with Lithgow hamming it up in a way that barely stopped short of him twirling his mustache and wearing a monocle). Romana Maggiora Vergano as the reformed prostitute Vittoria was probably the best-developed character, as she was the only one that had a true character arc and a meaningful relationship with Mother Cabrini.

This brings me to my major critique of the film: the Frances Cabrini character doesn't undergo any development; there's no real character arc. You don't get the sense that she learns anything, and she is never forced to deal with any sort of moral dilemma. She applies the same methodology consistently throughout the film from beginning to end and gets the same results. It is circumstance that yields to her, never her to circumstance. To really play this story right, you need some sort of arc with a dilemma. Think of Robert de Niro's Rodrigo in The Mission. Rodrigo starts as a violent worldling, but guilt over murdering his brother prompts him to abandon his life of violence to embrace missionary life with the Jesuits after an emotional experience of penance, but then later Rodrigo finds he must choose whether he can remain faithful to his principles in order to save the people he cares about. Brilliant character arc. Chefs kiss. 

Cabrini lacks any similar character development or internal moral dilemma. All her challenges are external; there's no struggle that takes place in the realm of her character that challenges her. In truly great films, there is a beautiful symmetry between the character's internal and external struggles: the external struggle the protagonist faces is a kind of externalized version of an interior struggle they must fight. The real battle is always within. Tony Stark's conflict with Obadiah Stane in the original Iron Man is indicative of Tony's own war to rise above his narcissistic, utilitarian disposition to become a more altruistic person. The defeat of Obadiah thus represents Tony Stark killing the worst parts of himself. We see no parallel in Cabrini. Her character fights and succeeds, but there is no sense that she grows. This was the biggest missed opportunity of the film.

That's not to say the film is bad; many good films can fail in this regard and are still good films. In We Were Soldiers, there's no indication that Mel Gibson's Hal Moore "learned anything" by the end of the movie; we simply see Hal fighting a battle for two hours and then going home, and that is your story. But that's all it's trying to be. In Cabrini, the film wants more; it wants us to be emotionally engaged with the struggles of Cabrini—and while I was to some degree (as I said, I got teary-eyed), it was much less than it could have been. Had they simply given St. Frances Cabrini some kind of internal struggle to grapple with that could be externally manifested in her fights with the city of New York, it would have elevated the film considerably. It is sad that it did not.

Was the film feminist? No. Well, not unless your definition of feminism is so broad as to basically classify any assertive female as a feminist. Yes, Cristiana Dell'Anna's Cabrini is assertive and determined. She continually displays the resolve to do whatever it takes to accomplish her vision and to get things done herself if the men she is surrounded by won't do it for her. The film makes a bit of a deal about her leading a foreign mission as a woman. But that actually was a big deal. And if you think that the assertive nun trope is feminist, then don't pretend to admire Mother Angelica, for it is the exact same tenacity she demonstrated. I will admit that now and then Dell'Anna hammed it up (I rolled my eyes when she said the world was too small for her plans), but sometimes hammy is fine; it's better to overact than to be a stiff piece of wood  à la Bree Larson's Captain Marvel. The bossy nun is not a Hollywood trope; it's a Catholic trope, and if you don't think it is, you haven't read enough hagiography. Catholic history is overflowing with tenacious religious women who refuse to take no for an answer. If you doubt me, call your nearest convent and tell their vocations director your daughter is contemplating a vocation and see how obnoxiously pushy they can be. So, no, I did not find Cabrini feminist...unless you also find Mother Angelica and a score of other notoriously demanding women religious to be feminist icons.

"But it got released on International Women's Day." So what? If anything, this is good, as it is deliberately proposing an alternative to the secular narrative of what women ought to be doing. To object to it being released on International Women's Day is so vacuous it approaches "All Saints Day is pagan because it happens on Samhain" levels of goofiness.

Some have criticized the film for presenting a secularized version of Cabrini that systematically removes references to God, prayer, etc. from her story, offering us Cabrini the humanitarian but not revealing Cabrini the saint. I can absolutely understand this critique, but I do not think it is the fatal flaw some are making it out to be, for several reasons—

First, it's simply not true. There is religious content in the film. Mother Cabrini leads prayer before meals. She threatens a pimp with damnation. We see her praying in the chapel during a critical moment. When her sisters are worried she quotes Philippians 4:13 to them. On more than one occasion we see her lecturing uncaring plutocrats about human dignity because "we are all children of God." We see her organizing a Catholic funeral procession for a dead girl. Religious imagery is everywhere in her convent, including a few shots that deliberately linger on a Sacred Heart image in the background in moments when Mother Cabrini's compassion is being stressed. So it is simply not true that the film lacks any depiction of her spirituality.

The problem isn't that the spiritual content isn't there, but rather that the writers failed to integrate it with Mother Cabrini's mission in any meaningful way. Her faith should have been portrayed as the source of her strength, the fount of her charity that made her impressive work possible. While her faith is displayed, it is done so in a way that almost seems on a parallel track apart from her charitable work. It would have been infinitely better to conjoin these two aspects of her character (as they undoubtedly were in real life) to demonstrate, not just that she possessed faith, but that her faith enriched her work by ennobling it with a supernatural orientation. We see her doing spiritual things, but seldom when it matters. Her faith is there, but it's handled awkwardly. 

But on another level, when considering the question of her spirituality, we have to step back and ask what this movie is even about. A lot of critiques I am reading on this point are saying something to the effect of, "For a movie about the life of a Catholic saint, there's not a lot of prayer." But the movie is not "about the life of a Catholic saint"—that is, the film is not a biographical account of St. Frances Cabrini's life; rather, it is a movie about her charitable work in New York City and her conflict with the city authorities. Its scope is quite specific. I would complain more about the spirituality if this movie purported to be a biopic, but it doesn't. It's about a very specific episode in her life that is focused on her external charitable works. 

To go back to The Mission: The Mission isn't just about "Jesuits in the Amazon." It's specifically about the Jesuits' attempts to save the Guarani from exploitation by the Spaniards. It therefore focuses on this specific aspect of the Jesuit missions. The Mission is also fairly devoid of explicitly spiritual content; we see Rodrigo crying in penance, but no indication it is because he is sorry to God. We get one scene of him reading the Bible with a voice over of 1 Corinthians 13, and that's about it. We never see Jeremy Irons' Fr. Gabriel preaching the Gospel, or catechizing the Guarani. We don't get any explanation of Ignatian spirituality. The emphasis is all on the temporal work of the Jesuits among the Guarani, not on the Guarani's spiritual conversion. At most, we see Fr. Gabriel at the end holding a monstrance, but there's no indication of what this means to him or how it gives him strength because there's no set up for this scene. But why do we still like the film? Simply because we understand that the spiritual stuff isn't the point of the film; The Mission is not about Ignatian spirituality or the Jesuits' community life, or the conversion of the Guarani. Those things are touched on only incidentally in service of the real story, which is a humanitarian story about protecting the Guarani missions from the Spanish slavers told through the character arcs of two different men. And because we know this, we allow our imaginations to fill in the blanks; because Fr. Gabriel is a well-written character, when we see him holding the monstrance at the end, we can infer what this means to him, even if it hasn't been demonstrated. We can infer the spiritual formation of Rodrigo even if there is only the most rudimentary attention devoted to it. The difference between The Mission and Cabrini is thus not in the amount of spiritual content, but in the writing—the script of The Mission was simply better written; its authors knew how to integrate this content better, precisely so that our imagination would do what it is supposed to in any good movie by filling in the gaps. The writers of Cabrini didn't, so the spiritual content feels more out of place, not as integral to the story.

To get back to Cabrini: the spiritual content is there, but there could have been more of it and better integrated. There were several scenes where I thought, "This would be an excellent scene to show Mother Cabrini making the sign of the cross and praying," but instead she stares off blankly. There is a ton of footage of the sisters working in their community, but no scene of them praying the Office or attending Mass together. The film thus missed a phenomenal opportunity to show how the life of a religious community sustains its charitable work. I do not believe the film deliberately presented a "secular" version of St. Frances Cabrini, nor that it systematically removed any spiritual content; I do think it handled the spiritual content clumsily due to sloppy writing. Once again, it is not that this is bad but that it could have been better.

Cabrini was a good movie, but far from perfect. It was like watching a really good Shakespeare production by a high school troupe: you know it could objectively be much better in different hands, but for who made it and the resources they had at their disposal, it's darned good. And Cabrini was vastly better than any of the B-grade, low-budget saint films you see in the Ignatius Press catalog, including Padre Pio: Miracle Man, Pius XII: Under Roman Sky, and all the rest (I will except Saint Teresa of Avila and Teresa of the Andes from this blanket critique, but neither of these are movies, they are miniseries).

I will close with a reference to another film that has been vastly formative in my life: Franco Zeferelli's 1972 Brother Sun, Sister Moon, on the life of St. Francis of Assisi. This movie is terribly dated in many ways; its soundtrack by Donovan and its horrible depiction of a versus populum hippie Mass in 13th century Italy are cinematic tragedies. But the things it gets right, it really gets right. To this day, I get moved to tears watching this movie, because certain parts of it resonate so deeply with me. It doesn't really matter that parts of it are cringe or unhistorical. It strikes the right chords where and when it needs to. So does Cabrini, and Cabrini gets a lot less wrong than Brother Sun, Sister Moon did. I thought it was a wholesome film and it succeeded in engaging me and inspiring me, despite its imperfections.

Finally, the fact that a non-Catholic film company is interested in making positive depictions of Catholic saints should be an occasion for rejoicing. People are thirsty for role models and the saints are obvious exemplars. Yeah, Cabrini muddles a few things. But in the end, if it leads people to go research the real Cabrini, that's a win. Brother Sun, Sister Moon got a lot wrong, but it led me to read about the real St. Francis, and that made all the difference. If I had to assign Cabrini a grade, I'd give it an 84%. It's not perfect by any means, but it is way better than most crappy saint films you've choked-down and gaslit yourself into thinking were good. Go give it a watch. My 13 year old daughter absolutely loved it.

Finally, if you'd like to read another review (shorter, and more critical), check out Rob Marco's take on it at his blog Pater Familias. Rob and I both saw Cabrini on the same day and were texting back and forth about it and decided to publish our reviews simultaneously.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review- one of the qualities I wanted to understand about Frances Xavier Cabrini, I believe her name is was her ability to draw people- charisma.
I believe her order is winding down now- the missionaries of the sacred heart. Or at least transferring the reins to lay interests was my understanding from a small booklet I read of her life.

After mother Cabrini, no one could really continue the work in her same vein. She was irrreplaceable. What was her special talent I always wondered - the interpersonal specialness of mother Cabrini.

As for working with beuracracies, I am not interested in knowing, although the set designs sound nice.

Anonymous said...

Word of advice: please do a better job of proofreading your work. I want to take it to heart, but it's difficult to take seriously when there are so many errors in spelling and grammar.

Boniface said...


It'a a freaking blog, not a scholarly dissertation. We all do the best we can with the time we have.

Anonymous said...

I loved film and agree with your critique after your bringing all those aspects to my attention. I never even thought about her not praying visibly, As a Catholic, I knew that’s what she was doing interiorly. Being taught by nuns when young, I learned they are Never showy, but elegant and modest. She could Not have accomplished that enormous work without callling on the Holy Trinity and saints like Teresa of Avila… speaking of strong-willed nuns! Thanks for great observations of “Cabrini”! Barbara

Jess Espinosa said...

I watched the movie this afternoon. Having been alerted through other reviews about its lack of scenes of prayer, Mass, rosary, etc., I watched with that in mind. And I found some scenes that could have been perfect for that - the scene with Vittoria describing her life as a prostitute at a very young age, mourning with the young boy the death of the older boy, the burning of the hospital (perfect for mention of forgiveness), the rejection after rejection from the mayor to the pope, etc., etc. These scenes would have been more powerful if reference to God has been made. I truly loved the cinematography. One in particular was the scene of the boy's funeral - all in silhouette, framed by an arch, all in black and white, the scene of Mother Cabrini standing behind a shiny table and her upside down reflection, and many more. I will surely get a DVD when it becomes available to add to my collection.

Boniface said...


I agree; there were so many scenes where she should have had recourse to prayer but it just showed her standing there lol. The cinematography was grand though they did a real nice job with that. It's nice when a movie is aesthetically pleasing to watch.

Sarah said...

“I cannot speak to the historical accuracy of the film, as I am not well-versed in the history of St. Frances Cabrini, but this is not particularly important to me in a film of this nature. There's too many critics who dump on historical films because the historical details aren't exactly right. This has never bothered me;“

The problem is, if you don’t know the history or how they changed it, it’s hard to know if it’s an issue or not. It’s my understanding they changed details to make her look much more alone and oppressed by hierarchy than she really was (for example, her treatment by the Archbishop of NY… even how the Pope sent her, how her fellow nuns were portrayed). As a woman, I appreciate that sexism and hardship for women existed, but I tune out when a historical movie changes historical details to emphasize a feminist slant. I know her story has plenty of drama without unnecessarily changing details. But then when I read or view a biography, I want it to be as accurate as possible within the medium they are working in.

Most positive reviews are saying something similar about the history, and that’s where I am realizing I doubt I will watch it. I guess it depends on what you are looking for in a movie.