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‘Cabrini’ Review: Lifeless Religious Drama Chronicles Hardships Faced by Determined Italian Nun Who Fought for Immigrants

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Embraced by Q-Anon conspiracy theorists, last year’s “Sound of Freedom” racked up over $250 million worldwide and brought Mexican-born director Alejandro Monteverde back in the spotlight almost two decades after his awfully saccharine 2006 debut “Bella” won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF. A filmmaker with an unabashedly Christian conservative agenda, Monteverde’s latest is a frustratingly sluggish biopic of Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini (Cristiana Dell’Anna), an Italian nun who defied the Catholic Church, as well as American institutions, to aide her countrymen in New York City during the late 1800s.

All of Cabrini’s past is reduced to an incident in her childhood where she nearly drowned. That she survived and continued to outlive her post-tuberculosis prognosis propels her to prove wrong anyone who suggests she doesn’t belong in any male-dominated space. After a meeting with Pope Leo XIII (Giancarlo Giannini) to discuss her plans to build orphanages in China, the Holy Father, an admirer of her conviction, tasks her with crossing the Atlantic to bring help and hope to mostly illiterate Italian migrants, particularly children living in dehumanizing conditions, faced with rampant xenophobia and a lack of health services.

None of the young nuns that accompany Cabrini on her mission are written to exhibit any personality. There’s no mention of how they feel about Cabrini and her actions or how they came to become her acolytes. Instead, Vittoria (Romana Maggiora Vergano), a young prostitute living in the slums of Five Points, takes on the role of apprentice, as the resolute Cabrini clashes with Archbishop Corrigan (David Morse) and government officials.

It’s undeniable that Cabrini’s commendable actions — including opening hospitals — impacted the lives of many destitute people when America’s hatred towards immigrants targeted different groups than it does today. Yet, Monteverde and co-writer Rod Barr mostly concentrate on the series of repetitive verbal confrontations and, despite the overwrought length of their project, neglect to construct a portrait of this heroine that reveals her humanity or even her relationship to God. Little insight is gained from what’s on screen.

Dell’Anna’s perpetually mortified visage communicates how the religious woman pushed through her physical frailty to continue working. A few scenes offer rousing glimpses of the actress’ ability for dramatic intensity. Her moderately believable acting, and that of most of the supporting players, separates “Cabrini” from other faith-based productions where the over-the-top theatricality of the cast makes it easier to dismiss as badly made propaganda. Still, Dell’Anna’s performance suffers from having to deliver a litany of sanctimonious dialogue in scene after scene of Cabrini persuading wealthy men to support her cause.

That monotony extends to the film’s visual blandness. Nearly every frame shot by cinematographer Gorka Gómez Andreu is coated in the artificially overblown sunlight coming through the windows in every interior to force an angelic atmosphere onto the story. There’s a fakeness to the patina that makes us hyperaware of the limitations in production value given the ambition and scope of this tedious period drama. That’s not entirely surprising, however, since the goal here is mere proficiency and not cinematic excellence. The delivery of the message takes priority. As long as the product appears accomplished enough to warrant a theatrical release, artistic relevance is secondary.

It’s almost as if Monteverde aims to appeal to the fringe political spectrum in this country by portraying himself and his work as examples of what “good immigrants” can do when they reject progressive ideals and align themselves with fascism based on religious affinity.

The director’s politics are inextricable from his filmic output given that former soap opera actor Eduardo Verastegui — Monteverde’s producer, friend, and sometimes star — has become a far-right voice in Mexican politics with an aggressive pro-life and anti-LGBT stance. It doesn’t take much digging to find a video of Monteverde on an American Christian TV show proclaiming that the media is poisoning the youth’s minds. What he and Verategui are doing, both seem to think, is simply fighting Hollywood from within.

But will their target audience — those watching through a white supremacist, “anti-woke” and surely anti-immigrant lens — be willing to extend the same empathy the movie might make them feel for Italian children, of the same race and faith, to the kids arriving at the southern border escaping poverty and violence or to those dying in Gaza? Doubtful. Even “Sound of Freedom,” which rallied the right’s most extreme voices, didn’t move the needle positively on immigration despite depicting Latin American victims of child trafficking.

As much as Cabrini envisioned “an empire of hope,” Monteverde and his collaborators dream of one of influence. But for all that can be questioned about the makers’ intentions, the movie’s greatest sin is how lifelessly solemn and aesthetically dull it is. Equidistant from the shock-value slop of the “God’s Not Dead” franchise and from anything remotely considered interesting filmmaking, “Cabrini” lies in a middle ground of mediocrity.

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