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The power of a woman’s voice: Alejandro Monteverde reflects on Mother Cabrini…

The power of a woman’s voice: Alejandro Monteverde reflects on Mother Cabrini…
Cristiana Dell’Anna plays the lead role of Francesca Cabrini in “Cabrini” from Angel Studios. (Image: Official Theatrical Trailer/YouTube)

“The world is too small for what I intend to do.” – Francesca Cabrini

Alejandro Monteverde, the award-winning director of Sound of Freedom and Bella, had never heard of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini when he was offered the script for a biographical film about her ministry in the slums of New York.

“My friend had a devotion to her,” he says, “but my first reaction, before I read the script, was ‘Well, I’ll read it, but I don’t think this is a movie I want to make.’ I like to make films that are entertaining!”

Monteverde was inspired, though, after learning about the life of Francesca Cabrini, a poor Italian immigrant nun who fought to overcome disease and poverty in the Five Points district of New York City.

“I was shocked,” he admits, “that I’d never learned anything about her. Her life was cinematic!”

Monteverde talked with Catholic World Report about the saint and about the epic film from Angel Studios which will, he hopes, bring her uplifting story to a broader audience. Asked what had inspired him to make this particular film about a Catholic nun, Monteverde explained:

I wanted to create an homage to her life, by creating an operatic expression of who she was and what she hoped to achieve by coming to America. She built one of the biggest empires of charity that the world had ever seen in that time. She was constantly facing battles–fighting a terminal illness, and standing against a government that was indifferent to the problems facing immigrants. This movie celebrated the power of a woman’s voice.

Monteverde acknowledges that, too often, Hollywood films display a certain prejudice against clergy and religious. “Most of the Catholics portrayed on the large screen,” he says, “are negative characters. What was the last movie you saw that portrayed a priest or nun in a positive way? Most often, the people who wear habits in film–priests, nuns–are portrayed very negatively. But in Cabrini, her habit doesn’t get in the way.”

Monteverde is disappointed that in almost every film he’s seen, Catholic priests were portrayed as the “bad guys.” On screen, priests often appear judgmental, and are often sexual abusers. “We need to make cinema,” he notes, “in which we see the people who work for the Church in a positive light.”

One question that has been raised about Cabrini is whether the film overemphasizes the political nature of Francesca Cabrini’s plans, while at the same time understating the spiritual. Monteverde emphatically disagrees that the film needs more prayer. “I am going to answer that in a playful way,” he says. “We also don’t see her showering or brushing her teeth–but this doesn’t mean she didn’t do those things…. If I show you a glass of water, I don’t have to say ‘This is a glass with water.’”

Monteverde believes that the film is a prayer in itself. He points to scenes in which Mother Cabrini is in church, or in prayer all night. “What do you do in church, as a nun?” he teases. “Obviously, you pray!” And in one scene the nun, facing the camera, recited her favorite verse from Scripture: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

Cabrini tells the story of a strong-willed nun who is determined to achieve her objective: persuading New York’s hostile mayor to reach out to the immigrant population, helping them to secure housing and healthcare and recognizing them as Americans. In one encounter, the mayor said to Mother Cabrini, “It is a shame that you are a woman, because you would have made an excellent man!” And Mother Cabrini responded, “No, Mr. Mayor. Men couldn’t do what we do!”

But is this a feminist storyline, in the usual sense of the word? The film is opening in theaters on March 8, International Women’s Day; but Monteverde describes that as a “happy accident.” He explained:

The movie was going to be released in November 2023; but because of the success of Sound of Freedom, we had to push it back. It was as though God had orchestrated the change. We had a wonderful opportunity to release Cabrini on a day that celebrates womanhood!

The film Cabrini tells the story of her early years in America, working on behalf of the poor in New York City. St. Frances Cabrini founded 67 missionary institutions across the United States and around the world, providing healthcare, housing and education to the needy. She died of malaria in 1917, at the age of 67. She was beatified by Pope Pius XI in November 1938 and canonized in July 1946 by Pope Pius XII. Four years later, in 1950, Pope Pius XII named her the patron saint of immigrants.

As the film’s director, Monteverde had hoped to create a cinematic journey for audiences, what he describeds as “a choreograph of a dance between cinema and Cabrini.” “We all wake up,” he says, “and we are facing our own personal battles. Some people may be facing death itself; others, marital problems, or financial problems. We are all facing things in life, but Cabrini shows us that we can’t give up.”

Before the official launch date, Monteverde had offered a private screening of the film to more than 600 nuns, many of them from Mother Cabrini’s order. “They were just mesmerized,” he recalls, “about how truthfully we told her story. They were saying, ‘That is Cabrini!’”

He expressed his hope that everyone will want to see this film, and that women will bring their sisters, their mothers, their friends. “This is a film that every woman should watch,” he said, “and every man should watch twice!”

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