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What You Need to Know About ‘Cabrini,’ the Follow-Up Film to ‘Sound of Freedom’

Could it be another $250 million faith-based hit?


spinner image Cristiana Dell’Anna as Francesca Cabrini in the film "Cabrini"
Cristiana Dell’Anna stars as Francesca Cabrini in "Cabrini."
Angel Studios

The most surprising blockbusters of 2023 were Barbie, Oppenheimer and the year’s No. 10 hit, Sound of Freedom, the hit movie about vigilantes battling child traffickers, which found favor with people of faith and moviegoers over 50.

Now its director Alejandro Monteverde and Angel Studios present another flick that faith-film audiences will love: Cabrini (in theaters March 8), about the first American canonized as a saint (in 1946), Francesca Cabrini. Here’s what you need to know about it:

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She always deserved a biopic, and March 8 is the ideal premiere date

Cabrini, the sickly yet indomitable Lombardy nun who landed in New York in 1899 with six sisters, scant cash and fathomless faith, founded scores of orphanages, hospitals and schools worldwide, starting in Five Points, the immigrant slum immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (it looks as impressively awful in Cabrini). There were dozens of people to a room, dying of typhus, tuberculosis and cholera, with gangs of orphans roaming the muddy mean streets. In the film, hospitals not founded by Cabrini refuse to treat Italian immigrants.

Entrepreneur J. Eustace Wolfington, who raised $50 million to fund Cabrini, told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “It was the largest charitable empire the world had ever known, an accomplishment equal to any Rockefeller or Vanderbilt. And all of her institutions were run by women.” Cabrini premieres on International Women’s Day.

It’s getting better reviews than ‘Sound of Freedom’

Sound of Freedom was popular, but controversial thanks to its real-life protagonist Tim Ballard’s sexual misconduct accusations and what sex-trafficking experts called sensationalist fictional elements in the film. So despite earning a near-perfect 99 percent score from audiences on Rotten Tomatoes and grossing over $250 million — more than The Godfather in non-inflation adjusted dollars — it got a mediocre 57 percent rating from critics. Cabrini got a stellar 96 percent critics’ rating opening week.

spinner image Cristiana Dell’Anna standing in front of schoolchildren in the film "Cabrini"
Angel Studios

It’s better acted than ‘Sound of Freedom’

Cristiana Dell’Anna, a star of the gripping Italian mafia series Gomorrah, captures the activist nun’s practically miraculous determination, and she matches the description of Cabrini in an 1889 New York Sun article: “She is a dark-hued but sympathetic woman with large coal-black eyes and a winning smile.”

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David Morse, 70 (True Detective, St. Elsewhere), is vivid as the New York archbishop who at first kept immigrant riffraff out of his sanctuary, before Cabrini won him over with her spiritual incandescence. “He just felt they were unclean, their behavior was bad and they were just going to chase away the ‘regular’ parishioners,” Morse told Beliefnet.

Federico Castelluccio, 59 (who played Carmela’s crush Furio on The Sopranos), ably plays a senator who also obstructed, then assisted Cabrini. Oscar winner Giancarlo Giannini, 81 (Love and Anarchy, Quantum of Solace), has gravitas and grace as Pope Leo XIII, who sent her to serve the indigent Italian immigrants flooding Manhattan. In a small, fictional role, Killers of the Flower Moon’s John Lithgow, 78, plays the New York mayor who loathes Italian immigrants in general and Cabrini in particular.

spinner image John Lithgow holding a cigar in the film "Cabrini"
John Lithgow stars as Mayor Gould.
Angel Studios

Many Americans really hated immigrants back then, especially other immigrants

As the film notes, from 1889 to 1910, over 2 million Italians fled to America, desperately poor, often illiterate and ignorant of English. The prior wave of Irish immigrants (and still earlier immigrants) often considered the Italians, as Lithgow’s mayor says, “a threat to the very fabric of America.” The rats lived better than the immigrants did, in Cabrini’s outraged opinion. The mayor calls them “a wave of brown-skinned filth parading up their street with a nun as their Pied Piper.”

“You may think we are lazy, dirty animals,” Cabrini retorts, “but someday there will be an Italian in this office and he will not be cleaning it! He will be running New York.”

Pope Pius XXI dubbed her “the patron saint of immigrants.”

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spinner image Romana Maggiora Vergano Vittoria and Cristiana Dell’Anna in a scene from the film "Cabrini"
Romana Maggiora Vergano Vittoria (left) and Cristiana Dell’Anna in "Cabrini."
Angel Studios

It doesn’t look like a Christian film — it looks like a mainstream movie

This is one key to Angel Studios’ startling success. Like Sound of Freedom, Cabrini may be appealing to faith audiences, but it it doesn’t push religion — which is good marketing, because Christians know as well as anyone how substandard most overtly Christian movies and shows are. Even Angel’s TV show about Jesus, The Chosen, was a hit because it emphasized entertainment. As Chris DeVille wrote in The Atlantic, “Take it from a critic and a Christian with an aversion to Christian entertainment: [The Chosen] is good ... it looks and feels downright secular.” So does Cabrini, and its production design by Carlos Lagunas and Gorka Gomez Andreau’s period-evocative cinematography are up to snuff. The movie pushes a social message more than a religious one.

Don’t miss this: Jesus Christ, Movie Star: The 5 Top Faith-Based Hits of 2023

spinner image Cristiana Dell’Anna smiles as she reads a letter in the film "Cabrini"
Angel Studios

They don’t make ’em like this these days

Cabrini is a midbudget historical epic (with no spandex superheroes or franchise characters) that today’s studios would not likely dare to make — but plenty of moviegoers still crave. “They’re gonna see a movie that the Hollywood studios really don’t do anymore,” said Morse. “There are no kind of middle-ground movies. There are less expensive ones and there’s the Marvel comic book world of really big, big movies. This is an honest-to-goodness old-time kind of movie.”

Like ‘Sound of Freedom,’ ‘Cabrini’ is a call to action

As its financier Wolfington said, “You want people to walk in upset about the broken world and to walk out on fire, wanting to change things.”

Sister Francesca is still in New York — and elsewhere

Her remains, with a wax mask, are on view like Sleeping Beauty in a glass coffin on the altar at New York’s St. Frances Cabrini Shrine, but part of her heart is found in another shrine in Italy — and also in the film Cabrini.

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