Wednesday, March 20, 2024

‘Cabrini:’ an ode to determination


    I always feel a bit awkward reviewing movies about religious figures. Such movies can trigger a series of false assumptions on the part of readers.
   If a reviewer praises the movie, he or she can be seen as endorsing a particular set of spiritual assertions. Criticism, on the other hand, easily can be confused with rejection of someone's beliefs. 
   Moreover, the sincerity that marks most "religious" movies doesn't always equate with artistic success.
   Cabrini, a bio-pic about Frances Xavier Cabrini, occupies a middle ground, locating itself somewhere between inspirational fare and hardscrabble realism while trying to liberate itself from parochial constrictions.
   I don't know if Mother Cabrini, as she was widely known, viewed herself as a prototypical feminist  but the movie tends to treat her as one, an ambitious and determined woman battling long odds to achieve her vision. 
   Frances Xavier Cabrini arrived in the US in 1889 determined to care for New York's poor Sicilian immigrants while also aiming to expand her work into a global network of orphanages and hospitals. 
  Cristiana Dell'Anna plays the lead role, painting a portrait of a dedicated woman who challenges male authority: first the Pope (Giancarlo Giannini), and later a New York archbishop (David Morse) and the mayor of New York City (John Lithgow).
   Note: I used the word “woman” and not the word “nun.” That tells you something about the movie’s generalized approach.
   Director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde plops Mother Cabrini and her nuns into the squalor of New York's Five Points, a lower-east side neighborhood. 
  Driven by respiratory problems, Cabrini knew her body eventually would betray her. In the film, she works as if every day might be her last. 
  In New York, Cabrini takes orphans off the streets and provides refuge for a Five Points prostitute (Romana Maggiora Vergano) who's being brutalized by her pimp. 
    The dialogue sometimes has the ring of a rudimentary civics lesson. At one point, Cabrini talks about defending immigrants of all ethnicities; they're the future of America, etc.
  Aside from WASP prejudice, little mention is made of the social conditions that forced so many Italian immigrants into abject poverty.
   As an outsider, it struck me that the movie downplayed the spiritual/religious aspects of Cabrini's Catholicism, as well as the role religion played in the lives of the populations Cabrini served en route to becoming a saint in 1946, some 29 years after her death.
   It would be an exaggeration to think of Cabrini as a movie about a nun who becomes a feminist superhero, but you get the idea and, in this case, the moral of the story seems reducible to a bromide: Miracles are made by determination, hard work, and to use a decidedly non-Catholic word, chutzpah.


Nick said...

I am just following up to see if this would be worth seeing if you aren't particularly religious. Thanks.

Robert Denerstein said...

Nick, I'd lean toward no -- not because of anyone's religious convictions but because I wasn't convinced that the movie presented as full a picture of Cabrini as might have possible. That's not to say that I thought the movie was awful -- just that I had that particular reservation. As always, I'd advise people to judge for themselves.