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Our review of “Cabrini,” and why even secular critics seem to like it

Cristiana-DellAnna-portrays-Mother-Cabrini-courtesy-of-Angel-Studios

Courtesy of Angel Studios

David Ives - published on 03/03/24

The film is as lavish looking as any historical drama Hollywood puts out these days and the acting from its international cast is top notch all around

Notwithstanding Mel Gibson, who showed up to Passion of the Christ already world famous, the faith-based film genre is not one that generally produces household names. However, Alejandro Gómez Monteverde may just end up being the person to change that. After his last effort, 2022’s Sound of Freedom, shockingly became a number one box office hit, many eyes were on the writer/director to see what he would come up with next. That follow-up has finally arrived in the form of Cabrini, a biographical tale of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini’s efforts to establish a charitable mission in 1889 New York, and it is surprisingly receiving positive word of mouth from critics who have seen advanced screenings.

Why surprisingly? Well, because the professional critic class typically loathes Monteverde’s films even as audiences love them. One need only look at the Tomatometer scores of Monteverde’s prior three films for evidence of this. Bella (2006) received 44% approval from critics, while garnering an 81% affirmation from audiences. Little Boy (2015) showed an even greater divide, with critics granting a meager 25% favorable rating as opposed to 78% of audiences who enjoyed it. Most inexplicably, only 57% of critics looked kindly on Sound of Freedom, while an overwhelming 99% of audiences extolled its virtues. So, yes, it’s a tad surprising that, at least as of this writing, 75% of professional critics on Rotten Tomatoes have found something good to say about Cabrini.

Reading through reviews, it’s obvious that past opposition to Monteverde’s work has been based mostly on his films’ ideology rather than their obvious quality. Bella was unabashedly pro-life, while Little Boy was a love letter to the power of prayer; two ideas which are typically anathema to mainstream movie journalism. The vitriol towards Sound of Freedom was a bit more baffling as the film’s primary purpose was to bring attention to the scourge of human trafficking, but somehow most critics managed to find the film unsuitable to their politics and lambasted it despite its pro-human rights message. And yet, despite such disdain for Monteverde’s past filmography, most critics so far seem to like Cabrini.

Does this mean Monteverde is beginning to cave and make movies more in tune with the mindset of secular critics? Nope, not at all.

Cabrini features as its main character a nun who never once wavers in her faith or questions the teachings of the Church. She believes she has received a mission from God to serve the poor, and she steadfastly pursues that goal with not a single side look given to worldly enticements. She starts the film as a good Christian and remains one as the credits roll. Honestly, you would think that alone would be enough for secular critics to despise this movie. So, why don’t they?

Part of the reason is no doubt due to how well-made Cabrini is. The film is as lavish looking as any historical drama Hollywood puts out these days and the acting from its international cast is top notch all around, especially that of Cristiana Dell’Anna, who is more than convincing as the determined saint-to-be. A scattering of familiar faces from filmdom in the likes of John Lithgow, David Morse, and Giancarlo Giannini also lend the film mainstream credibility.

It’s more than that, though. What likely appeals most to critics who are usually cold in their reception of Monteverde’s body of work is that there is a bit of a “girl power” theme that runs throughout the narrative of the film. 

Not to be alarmed, though. It’s not the type of “girl power” that is obnoxiously or artificially forced on some movies, but rather one that is simply inherent in the facts of Mother Cabrini’s story. For instance, when the Vatican shows reluctance to allow a simple nun to start a massively expensive overseas mission from scratch, it’s not depicted as some evil anti-female conspiracy (not entirely anyway), but as a realistic acknowledgement that a woman from Italy will have little to no sway in pre-19th Amendment New York where Italian Catholic immigrants are perceived as vermin, or worse. As such, much of the film’s entertainment value comes from watching the good Mother match wits with a reticent Pope and the New York political machine embodied by Lithgow’s Mayor Gould. Despite every possible obstacle, she draws on the power of her faith and forges ahead, oft while repeating her mantra, “Begin the mission, and the means will follow.” 

SAINT MOTHER CABRINI
This is a reproduction of the last known photograph of Mother Cabrini, taken at the ceremonies which marked the opening of Sacred Heart School in Dobbs Ferry, Westchester County, New York, in 1914. This celebration coincided with the commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart’s arrival in America.

So, yes, Cabrini is “girl power,” but with an acknowledgement that such power, when authentic, comes from a higher source. That may not be entirely in line with modern secular thought, but it seems good enough for the critics this time around. Even if it wasn’t, though, those inclined to recognize such truths will find in Cabrini another winner from Monteverde. Of course, given its religious subject matter, Cabrini is unlikely to duplicate the lightning in a bottle box office success of Sound of Freedom, but its overall quality should be more than enough to convince faith-based film fans that they finally have a superstar director to call their own.

Cabrini opens in theaters on March 8, 2024. Find showtimes here.

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