Courtesy of Angel studios

Not Enough Jesus

A review of the new film Cabrini by Angel Studios
Barbara Gagliotti

Too Small a World – the title of a popular biography of Mother Frances Cabrini – encapsulates an episode emblematic of the saint’s personality. When she was told that she would find New York an ample field for her charitable and missionary purposes, she rejoined, “The whole world is too small for me.”

Last week’s release of Cabrini by Angel Studios on March 8 was timed to coincide with International Women’s Day in an attempt to promote the witness of a Christian woman and her heroic deeds as an example of authentic female fulfillment. The question is, does it succeed?

Angel Studios is the American film company responsible for the mega-hit series “The Chosen” and the 2023 box office surprise “Sound of Freedom.” The films have achieved their success independently of big studio backing, riding a groundswell of popular support, while utilizing direct investment strategies and crowdfunding campaigns, and an innovative pay-it-forward model. So far, “The Chosen” has reached an international audience of 108 million (and climbing) households. Hats off to our brothers at Angel Studios for their courage and desire to bring faith-inspired stories to the big screen in an age so desperately in need of the Good News.

Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917), as portrayed in the film, is indeed a strong and determined woman. She is the proud daughter of her Italian heritage and the filmmakers make the bold choice to use her native language for a good portion of the film (with English subtitles). We see her battling the Roman Curia, going head-to-head with Pope Leo XIII, even taking on the Italian Senate, all male-dominated institutions. In her mission to New York, she is likewise the staunch defender of the poor Italian immigrants she came to serve. She scours the sewers of Five Points, the infamous Lower Manhattan slum, in search of orphans, cares for poor workers forced to labor under dangerous conditions, stares down hardened criminals and wrestles with a corrupt and bigoted City Hall. All of these episodes are true, and that’s what makes Cabrini’s story so compelling.

It is simply astounding to think that anyone, let alone a woman of her day, could have accomplished the works she did. In her 28 years of missionary activity, she crossed the ocean 30 times, founded some 67 missions, and supervised firsthand the establishment of schools, orphanages, and hospitals on three continents.

Where the film falls short, and it is a major flaw, is in its failure to grasp and bring to life the origin and nature of Mother Cabrini’s strength. Faith in God, in the Sacred Heart of Jesus and in the Church, was the sure source of all her endeavors. She was not the solitary, self-made saint the film would have us believe. To be sure, she was a woman of action, but all of her energy came from her attachment to Our Lord – in prayer, in the frequent reception of the Eucharist, in the life of her sisters, and in the obedience to her calling. “We must pray without tiring, for the salvation of mankind does not depend upon material success…but on Jesus alone,” she counseled her spiritual daughters. However, we see little of her life of prayer in the film. In the one scene where we can surmise that Cabrini is praying, she is sitting despondently in a chapel until she is exhorted by a co-worker, a former prostitute, not to give up. How much more powerful, and authentic, would that moment have been if both had been on their knees, begging the Lord for his comfort and aid.

When in difficulty, Mother Cabrini always repeated, "I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). Yet, the screenplay seems to throw away this and other formidable phrases in the Cabrini arsenal, such as “Rest? We will have all eternity in which to rest. Now let us work.” Woven more effectively into the dialogue, these lines could have given us insight into the saint’s relationship with the Mystery. She had visions, too. She did not immediately warm up to the work of opening a hospital. Then, she dreamt of Our Lady with her sleeves rolled up comforting the afflicted. The Blessed Mother told her, “I am doing what you refuse to do.” That was enough for Mother Cabrini to act. And while she did have to overcome many barriers to her mission erected by those inside the church, she was a spiritual daughter of Pope Leo XIII and his encouragement and paternity energized her. She wrote, “Accompanied by that blessing, I go about everywhere with the utmost confidence; no more shall fear ever depress my spirit, no matter how hard the way, no matter what obstacles may be thrown in my way by spiritual enemies or my temporal opponents. The Pope has spoken, God has spoken; I go my way secure.”

The world was in fact too small for the burning heart of Saint Frances Cabrini, but it was so because, as she told us, “The Kingdom of God has no limits; its limits are those of the globe itself. Come, and let your glory be the glory of your celestial spouse, the working out of that celestial talent – the sublime vocation of cooperating with Christ for the salvation of souls.”

If I have to sum up what is lacking in the film’s portrayal of this remarkable woman and saint, I would say, in her native tongue, troppo poco Gesù – not enough Jesus – without whom Mother Cabrini, whose life yielded an abundance of heroic Christian virtue, would not be the super woman she was and would not have left such an outsized mark on the world.

For those who would like to know Saint Frances Cabrini better, I recommend revisiting the exhibit sponsored by New York Encounter in 2015: The Face of Sanctity, The Human Face: The Lives of Elizabeth Seton and Frances Cabrini as well as Theodore Maynard’s 1945 biography, Too Small a World, The Life of Mother Frances Cabrini (recently reprinted by Ignatius Press).