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Coming to America: Terrific New Film Honors Mother Cabrini

Quick trivia question: Who was the first American to be canonized as a Catholic saint?

Well, if you read our headline above, you probably already guessed: Frances Xavier Cabrini, an Italian immigrant who worked tirelessly to help her fellow-countrymen in their struggle against poverty, prejudice, crime, and disease at the turn of the last century.

An absorbing and intelligent new film from the rapidly rising Angel Studios tells her story.

Released March 8 to strong reviews from both critics and audiences, Cabrini comes from the same writing and directing team that gave us Angel’s 2023 sleeper-hit Sound of Freedom.

Anchored by an impressive lead performance from Italian actress Cristiana Dell’Anna, the film also offers terrific supporting work from John Lithgow as a fictional New York mayor; David Morse as real-life archbishop Michael Corrigan; newcomer Patch Darragh as a kindly Irish doctor; Giampiero Judica as Father Morelli; and — stealing all his scenes as Pope Leo XIII — the legendary Giancarlo Giannini, whose staggering 60-year career comprises foreign hits from the 1970s (Seven Beauties, Swept Away), along with more recent work in Hannibal, Man on Fire and Casino Royale.

Another newcomer, Romana Maggioria Vergano, brings enormous sympathy and conviction to Vittoria, a tender-hearted prostitute who helps Cabrini navigate the dirty, dangerous and destitute Italian enclave at Five Points in Lower Manhattan.

But the film rests largely on Dell’Anna’s sturdy shoulders; she exemplifies both Cabrini’s quiet dignity and her irresistible doggedness in overcoming mainly male opposition at the Vatican — as well as in New York City government, the American clergy and the Italian senate.

The film’s other triumph is how great it looks.

Cabrini was filmed partly in Rome, with Buffalo and Niagara Falls standing in for New York through most of the American scenes. Since the setting is well over 100 years ago, much computer work was needed to make this happen, and it looks seamless — complemented by superior costumes and stunning cinematography. Several scenes look like paintings — even some set in seamy slums and sewers.

At nearly two and a half hours, the overlong film might have benefited from some judicious editing. Nonetheless, its Rotten Tomatoes rating stands at a solid 91 with critics — and an even more glowing 98 with audiences.

It manages this twin feat by being — like other Angel works such as TV’s The Chosen — patently faith-based, yet at the same time pressing firmly on the cultural hot-buttons of immigration and female empowerment. To put it bluntly, it seems deliberately (and successfully) designed to appeal to both liberals and conservatives.

Yet for earnest Christian viewers, there is not much here about the One whose death and resurrection (so recently honored in Webb’s Easter issue) makes possible all this very good work.

Indeed, the film misses a huge opportunity when Vittoria, racked with guilt over a recent death, declares, “There’s not enough blood in the world to make me clean.” I dare say the real Mother Cabrini might have pointed out that there is actually a different sort of blood — one from a divine source — that fully addresses this very problem. Instead, we get a brief encomium on strong women.

Yet at the same time, with so many privileged men in the film objecting to the kind of people Cabrini works with, the movie is a potent reminder that sin, sickness and penury mark key battlegrounds for the church’s work.

Rod Barr’s excellent dialog highlights this, along with Cabrini’s astonishing fortitude — which, among other things, involved wrestling with lifelong physical debility. Challenged early on about her frailty, the courageous Mother replies quite simply: “We can serve our weakness, or we can serve our purpose.”

Cabrini shows that she served it very well indeed.