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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Vollaro

The Awe and the Pity of Cabrini

It is the Catholic in me who weeps for Mother Cabrini, in a theater two miles from my house, with just three other people inside, seated comfortably in the screen-lit dark. Mother Cabrini, the fragile nun who built a global empire of missionary institutions that served the sick and the poor. She is the self-sacrificing celibate sister who barely speaks the name of God throughout the film, who is almost never shown praying or participating in religious rituals, who seems to float above (or perhaps beneath) the superstition of the Church, more comfortable renovating rat-infested buildings and shaming powerful men into supporting her projects than prostrating herself. She occasionally grips the big silver cross around her neck as if it is a weapon she can wield in an ally fight or the handle of a cane that will hold her upright for the rest of the day. It is her pained, mournful gaze that grips me. The heavy-lidded brown eyes are pools that reflect the suffering of the world.

Down the hall, two whole theaters are packed for Denis Villeneuve's sci-fi epic Dune 2, which features a sisterhood of Machiavellian schemers who are hellbent on breeding a man-god called the Kwisatz Haderach. The culture finds no end of uses for the nun archetype. On Netflix, you can see superhero nuns, a horror film set in a nunnery, a cold case involving a murdered nun. Two days ago on Apple Music, I listened to Trent Reznor’s “Nun with a Motherf*&*ing Gun” from the soundtrack to HBO’s The Watchmen, a TV series which features a superhero character who dresses like a nun. 

Cabrini, Alejandro Gómez Monteverde’s biopic about the first American saint, unabashedly channels a pure-blood version of the nun archetype. Like any superhero, Francesca Cabrini has a backstory. Hers involves a near-drowning as a girl through which she discovers her capacity to continually come back when beaten down. At times, her compromised lungs appear to be her chief nemesis. But Cabrini’s real superpower is her capacity for self-sacrifice. She seems willing to throw her entire self into the vast nonprofit enterprise that is her life, even at the risk of her own survival. And though she struggles mightily against the patriarchy as she builds her empire of compassion, Cabrini is the antithesis of the 21st century “girl boss,” who exists to preen and proclaim her success with an almost vengeful glee, pausing only occasionally to pontificate about how she will create “generational wealth.” 

The setting for this Catholic superhero drama is a both foreign and familiar late-19th century Manhattan Island. The director clearly wants the audience to draw a connection between the treatment of Italian immigrants and the immigrants crossing the border right this minute in Texas and Arizona, but he also wants us to recognize the historical awfulness of Gilded Age American poverty.  The masses huddled in Five Points are starving and barely housed, living debased at the edge of human existence, in a country that seems somehow more barbaric than the modern United States. This is grinding poverty, the kind that kills body and soul quickly and leaves both lying prostrate and cold in filth—ragged shantytown Third World poverty without margin or buffer. It is important for the audience to know this, to feel it, so that we will recognize the black-robed figure as she emerges from the mist.

My having been raised Catholic is what fills me with awe for Cabrini, but it is my having left the Church that makes me pity her. 


Staring around the nearly empty theater when the film is over, I wonder, what is this catharsis I feel? And then I realize what it is: I knew nothing about this film before I walked into the theater, except for a vague recognition of the name "Cabrini." I had not watched trailers or googled the actors' IMDB pages. I knew nothing about the making of the film or its Oscar buzz or even the name of its director. I had not yet read the articles praising its unabashed celebration of a person of faith or the reviews calling it "tedious" or "lushly mounted" or the articles promising to expose the real Cabrini. I was completely free from the cynical, plodding, pedestrian comet tail of digital ephemera that streams out behind every new cultural artifact these days, the death-by-a-thousand-cuts diminution of art that occurs in a media environment that is oversaturated with information…about everything. To know nothing about a film, to walk in blind, is a rare experience that set the stage for my emotional response.

When it was over, I realized that it has been a long time since I felt anything real in a movie theater. I am no longer a regular movie-goer as I was in my 20s and 30s so I cannot speak to the breadth of film releases this year, but so much Hollywood fare these days swims in the shallowest of emotional waters, trading spectacle for human connection. The collective emotional content from the entire hydra-headed Marvel franchise could be dribbled into a thimble, I think. Dune is a wonderfully made, wildly entertaining film, but its main forte is visual spectacle, a thrill ride on the back of a giant sandworm. If I feel anything for these characters, it is only the briefest flash. 

The feeling I had for Cabrini was sustained and marrow deep.  

Admittedly, my emotional connection to this film is personal, but I believe other Catholics, ex-Catholics, cultural Catholics, or Catholics in recovery must have experienced the same twinge of recognition I felt. A Catholic upbringing imprints upon you a deep respect for the self-sacrificing human, in both male and female forms. Mother Cabrini is the latter, wheezing and trembling and hobbling through an operatic performance of her frailty in the face of an unwavering desire to carry on. Her self-denial is palpable, except in those few moments when others hint at a less noble character trait. “I can't tell when your faith ends and your ambition begins,” the pope muses in her presence. And for an instant, the audience is allowed to consider Mother Cabrini’s less-than-saintly attributes. 

But this film is not a psychologically complex biopic. You won’t find a conflicted personality in Mother Cabrini, only a driven woman living in the shadow of her own mortality. There is a startling clarity to Cristiana Dell’Anna’s portrayal of Cabrini. A workaholic who rejects any suggestion of self-care, Cabrini has no interest in living a balanced lifestyle. I recognize an uncomfortable truth in this character: I started my teaching career at two Catholic high schools, and they were both imbued with this work-till-you-drop ethos. People sometimes burn themselves out working for Catholic institutions because they internalize these values. 

It would be a mistake to watch this film hoping to understand the character traits that made Mother Cabrini a “great” person. Except for her mule-headedness and her gift for cutting to the moral quick in conversations with powerful men, Mother Cabrini does not appear to be an exceptional person. She is often depicted with her coterie of black-clad compatriots, and they work together like a highly efficient hive mind. No one says it out loud in the film, but Cabrini is only as good as her sisters. 

Mother Cabrini’s chief virtue is that she consistently rises to the occasion in extraordinary circumstances. She possesses an unwavering sense of what must be done and she does it. Her saintliness does not come from piety or genius or even exceptional character but rather from the audience’s intuition that she is meeting the moral challenge of her age head-on. Cabrini is what will inevitably be summoned forth in places like Five Points, a counterpoint to the cruelty and deprivation, as inevitable as revolution itself.  She seems to understand and embrace this. 


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