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Cabrini

There is a terrific scene late in the powerful and old-fashioned epic “Cabrini,” on the eponymous Italian Catholic missionary nun who not only founded a peerless orphanage in New York at the turn of the 20th century (and gave her name to Hudson Heights’ serene Cabrini Boulevard in Manhattan), but also resolutely built a worldwide network of charitable organizations and homes in the decades following.

In said scene, Francesca Cabrini, played with quiet command by a convincing Cristiana Dell’Anna, faces and at long last wins over the until-then villainous and sabotaging New York mayor (John Lithgow, playing a fictional character), who finally agrees to support her mission. The two toast to their newfound understanding, with Mayor Gould dropping the most patriarchal observation imaginable onto the headstrong and stubborn go-getter Cabrini, a woman who will work tirelessly and won’t take no for an answer. “It’s too bad you’re not a man. You would’ve been an excellent man,” he cluelessly says. In response, Cabrini simply and correctively reminds him that a man could never do what she and her Sisters do.

How right she is in this impressive (yet overlong) Great Woman biopic, directed by Alejandro Monteverde and written by Rod Barr. In fact, the entire film refreshingly feels like a testament to those unique powers of femininity—when one is constantly dismissed for her gender, undermined and told no, one does grow a few additional physical and emotional muscles away from the prying eyes of men. It’s that fortitude that sets Cabrini in motion in 1889 and brings her over to New York with a group of nuns, all appointed by the Pope Leo XIII (Giancarlo Giannini) in a mission to support the city’s careworn Italian immigrant communities. At that time, NYC—just a couple of decades removed from the “Gangs of New York” era—was ruthlessly hostile towards the Italians, the opening cards tell us. The environment was predictably antagonistic towards women. And helpless children were dying in a city that refused to care for its most vulnerable. So defying the odds (and ignoring her flailing health condition), Francesca gets settled in the slums of Lower Manhattan’s Five Points at once, starting to fight an initially losing battle towards all the powers that neither want her nor her country men, women and children.

Much of the film is structured around her false starts, which in turn gives the audience plenty of opportunities to see the kind of womanly stamina Cabrini talks about in the aforesaid scene with the mayor. While it is sometimes laced with Cabrini’s colorful array of supporters, such as a kindly local priest called Father Morelli (Gaimpiero Judica), a precocious orphan and a prostitute played by Romana Maggiora Vergano, “Cabrini” also can’t escape a repetitive flavor due to these endless ups and downs, across a runtime that begs to be tightened.

Still, along with his cinematographer Gorka Gónez Andreu, Monteverde makes it worth your while in the visuals department. There are countless beautifully conceived compositions and classically grand illumination across “Cabrini” that shoots arrows of lights and shadows through New York’s floor-to-ceiling windows, giving us the kind of middlebrow, big-screen period piece that used to occupy our theater screens regularly just a few decades ago. These days, the likes of “Cabrini” deserve praise simply by virtue of committing to a sumptuous cinematic palette and, well, looking like a movie. One sequence in particular, when a group of kids sings Verdi’s “Va, pensiero” chorus to a famed Italian opera singer in order to beg for his high-profile support in their cause, signals that kind of a movie flavor of yore.

If the name Alejandro Monteverde is familiar to your ears, it’s likely because of last year’s absurd and highly controversial box office hit “Sound of Freedom.” Thankfully, “Cabrini” doesn’t arrive with a controversy to its name. Instead, it humbly challenges its contemporary viewers to ask themselves what kind of a city, country or world would they want to live in—those that favor a select few and leave everyone else behind, or those founded on values of true equality? Cabrini and her Sisters fiercely believed in the latter, erecting something that should be commemorated in the same breath as what the Rockefellers or the Vanderbilts of the world have accomplished (to paraphrase a journalist who portrays their work in support). “Cabrini” is in no way a perfect movie, but a damn dignified one that honors the little-known efforts of these fearless women.

In theaters Friday.

Tomris Laffly

Tomris Laffly is a freelance film writer and critic based in New York. A member of the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), she regularly contributes to RogerEbert.com, Variety and Time Out New York, with bylines in Filmmaker Magazine, Film Journal International, Vulture, The Playlist and The Wrap, among other outlets.

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Film Credits

Cabrini movie poster

Cabrini (2024)

Rated PG-13

142 minutes

Cast

Cristiana Dell'Anna as Francesca Cabrini

David Morse as Archbishop Corrigan

Giancarlo Giannini as Pope Leo XIII

John Lithgow as Mayor Gould

Romana Maggiora Vergano as Vittoria

Federico Ielapi as Paolo

Virginia Bocelli as Aria

Rolando Villazón as Disalvo

Patch Darragh as Dr. Murphy

Director

Screenplay

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