Epic film tells remarkable story of Italian nun who became America’s first saint

“It’s often complained that despite all the advances made in attitudes in the film industry, there is still a dearth of strong roles for female actors”, says Joseph Kelly of www.thecatholicnetwork.co.uk.

“So a filmscript centred around not only a powerful female lead, but a woman who’s life story had all the attributes of an epic melodrama, was bound to deliver a powerful piece of cinema.”

Maria Francesca Cabrini was the youngest of 13 children born on 15th July into a farming family in the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia in what is now northern Italy, but she went on not only to build an American empire as big as the Rockefellers but became the country’s first saint in the process.

Award-winning director Alejandro Monteverde admits that the life of Maria Cabrini was a story he just knew he had to tell.

“She was a woman who came here with nothing; this is the ultimate underdog story,” says Monteverde.

“And she fought for the good of others. She could not sleep knowing that there were children sleeping on the streets. She was also a woman who not only fought all these institutions that were run by men at that time, but she was a woman who was fighting for her own health.

“Doctors gave her every year only a year to live, and she was always able to squeeze one more year out of life, because she had a very strong purpose. That’s what I love about her life. In many ways, her life was very cinematic, meaning her story is very artful.

Monteverde’s film – which is already attracting high praise globally – charts the rise of a woman whose determination, business skill and unswerving faith helped her overcome profound sexism and anti-immigrant bigotry – all to found an empire of hope that transformed the lives of millions worldwide.

Cabrini is an absolutely exceptional, full-length motion picture tour-de-force that celebrates the life of Cabrini, from her early years in Italy as an ailing child, to her worldwide accomplishments of creating more than 60 hospitals, orphanages and schools – often against all but impossible odds.

Cabrini took religious vows in 1877 and added Xavier (Saverio) to her name to honour the Jesuit saint, Francis Xavier, the patron saint of missionary service. She had planned, like Francis Xavier, to be a missionary in the Far East.

In November 1880, Cabrini and seven other women who had taken religious vows with her founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (MSC).

After gaining experience running an orphanage in Italy, she became convinced she could replicate this elsewhere and headed to Rome to ask if she could be sent to China. After having to petition Pope Leo XIII directly – he sent her instead to the United States, where he believed pastoral support was needed urgently in particular to the growing Italian immigrant community in New York.

New York at this time was a very depressed, run down and dangerous area and the Five Points where she was headed was the city’s most notorious neighbourhood – as anyone who watched the 2001 film The Gangs of New York by film legendary Martin Scorsese will recall.

The rest of the script takes its audience on a heady but ultimately inspiring journey through Cabrini’s remarkable life, tribulations and her successes.

Throughout the film the script holds together extremely well, and undoubtedly this helped the actors to deliver powerful and memorable performances, but has also clearly generated the creative space for Monteverde to deliver a visual masterpiece.

The sets are magnificent and really do evoke the New York of the time, and along with meticulous attention to costume, set detail and special effects, this production has unquestionably burst cross the rubicon that so often normally separates religious films from mainstream cinema offerings.

Although the performances from all the cast have been lifted by the powerful narrative, special mention needs to be made of the performance of Christina Dell’Anna as Francesca Cabrini. The chance to plays such a complex and historically significant character might overwhelm many an actor, but Dell’Anna delivers an outstanding performance that is not only accurate and evocative, but also affirms the underlying seep spirituality and sense of divine service that lay beneath Cabrini’s public persona.

CABRINI is showing in selected UK cinemas from 8th March. Click here to see screenings in your area and to order tickets: