By Joseph Pronechen/National Catholic Register
Excitement is building as the new movie Cabrini from Angel Studios and directed by Alejandro Monteverde will launch in theaters nationwide on March 8 (get tickets here). This is the same team responsible for Sound of Freedom that made history at the box office by becoming the highest-grossing independent film of 2023 and the 16th of all time. Monteverde was also the writer-director of the award-winning hit Bella. Audience reaction observed at pre-release screenings appears to place Cabrini on a similar track.
The times seem ripe for bringing to a wide audience the story of Francesca Cabrini, later to be Mother Frances Cabrini then St. Frances Cabrini, the first U.S. citizen to be canonized, on July 7, 1946. Monteverde spoke with the Register on Jan. 17 about his vision for storytelling, why this inspiring and influential saint who people have nearly forgotten is significant and important for these times, and his hopes for the film.
How did you decide to do a film on Mother Cabrini?
This is a movie that found me. I didn’t really look for the movie. I have to give all the credit to J. Eustace Wolfington, [the executive producer] who has a big devotion to Mother Cabrini. He is the one who found the film and put it all together.
He is one of the most successful entrepreneurs that I know. He created the concept to lease a car. And Mother Cabrini was a very successful entrepreneur. She built an empire as big as the Rockefellers at that time and created over 66 institutions all around the world. So when I read this great feminist screenplay, and when I read her life, I realized that this was a movie about a woman that happened to be a nun, and she happened to be the first American saint.
She was a woman who came here with nothing; this is the ultimate underdog story. 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.
How have preview audiences reacted since this is a story about a nun who is the main character?
People of all faiths connect with her. That’s been revealed when we were doing screenings. This is a very inspirational story. It’s just like Gandhi. Her habit does not get in the way of reaching out to all audiences because in order to create change in the world, we have to come together and fight for the common good.
Right now, it’s almost normal to walk on the streets and see people sleeping on the streets, and you just go about your day. Cabrini wouldn’t. She also was a main inspiration for woman like Mother Teresa, who also had an incredible life lived for others.
When I read the script, I connected with that, and I wanted to shine a light on her life.
Coming from Mexico, did you bring to the film anything from your own experience?
For sure. It was one of the main things I connected with the film. But one thing that is very interesting: Cabrini was not about immigration. She was about the immigrant, which is a big difference. She was about the human being. She never got involved in politics. She just got involved with the human being who was in need, living on the streets. She focused all of her energy to help others, especially the Italian immigrants, but all kinds of immigrants. That’s why she’s called the “Patron of Immigrants.”
For me, when you come to this country as an immigrant, you have your identity of the place you were born, and then you have to embrace a new identity. It’s almost like you have to combine them. In many cases, most of the immigrants who come to this country with nothing, with the hope of building a life here, identify because she came here with nothing. And she built one of the greatest empires of charity that the world had ever known. I identify with that.
How else do you identify with her?
She was an underdog; I’m an underdog myself, in what I do as a filmmaker. So there was a lot of her life that inspires and continues to inspires me, too, to keep facing the battles that are in front of me. She had many battles, and she would wake up every day ready to fight. So this movie has a universal theme: It gives you the fuel [for the battles], per se.
Are you concerned people viewing this might wrongly see it as a feminist film because of the strong focus on her being a woman fighting strongly?
I’m not worried at all. There are many dangers, but one of the biggest, in my humble opinion, is when we label each other without getting to know each other. If somebody tells me something really negative about you, and instead of me taking the time to get to know you, I just believe that, then I shouldn’t even talk to that person. So, yes, people might label the movie without seeing it in any way, shape or form. But once they see what the film is — it celebrates the power of a woman. Just like many other movies celebrate the power of a man. And there’s nothing wrong with that. This was a woman who fought for the well-being of those without dignity. And it celebrates that. In this case, it happened to be a woman. But if it was St. Francis, then he happens to be a man. She’s a hero and she happens to be wearing a cape.
Did your Catholic faith help with this film?
Well, I keep my faith as private as possible. I feel when you’re out there making movies, I always like to tackle all my subject matter from an objective point of view, to invite all audiences to come and enjoy the film without any agenda.
But my faith helps me more than anything in my personal life. Yes, of course, it requires a lot of spiritual strength to face all the obstacles that my career has. And I rely on practicing my faith in order to get the strength, but I always try really hard to not put or impose my beliefs on anybody, especially on film.
I like to work with all kinds of artists who have completely different beliefs: We all come together; and let’s focus on what we agree on; let’s tell stories that unite. And those are the kinds of films that I like to make, of course; obviously, this film will resonate really strongly, because we are celebrating a Catholic saint. We’ve been doing screenings for all kinds of audiences. The beauty is, the reaction has been incredible. It’s just like the movie Gandhi. You can watch it and enjoy it and connect with it. This is the same. Her having a habit does not get in the way. She’s a religious character, but she’s a universal character, just like Mother Teresa.
So this is a film to celebrate the power of one person going to try to change the world. And she did. And she started in Five Points, which was the poorest [and most crime-ridden] borough of New York City, and moved all around the world. So it’s a universal story. And I say her life was a prayer in itself. I’m just excited to share the film with everybody in the world.
And to think she traveled so much by sea yet was frightened of sailing.
She was terrified of the water because she almost drowned. She fell into a river when she was a little girl, and they had to resuscitate her. She had all kinds of health complications. And at that time, they didn’t have the right medical treatment. So every year the doctors would tell her, “You have one year to live; you’re going to die next year.” So she fought a massive battle healthwise.
You focus a lot in your films on faith and family. How did you bring these two together in Cabrini?
The family, for Cabrini, was all of her sisters and all the children that she became family to — Mother Cabrini: She actually became a mother to all these children who she was rescuing from the streets. So it is not necessarily the conventional family of father, mother and children. It’s more like a family that she created herself.
You said in a press release, “I conceived of Cabrini as a cinematic dance and elevated almost to operatic experience that mirrors the epic power and audacity of the woman herself.” What do you mean?
Her life was very operatic. When you see an opera, everything is very expressive. And she was very expressive because she was very successful in achieving things that were literally impossible. So I wanted to create an experience that felt like you were at the opera, and it was choreographed within the cinema. So it became like a dance. I shot in a very different way than I’ve shot any other film. There were a lot of very continuing shots that were very carefully choreographed. It was really risky, because if it didn’t work, there would be no movie. It was shot in a way that it wouldn’t be possible to be fixed as a possible option. But it worked, thanks be to God!
What are your hopes for Cabrini; what do you hope that audiences will take away with them?
My hope is for many people to see the film and leave inspired to face their battles because we all have battles. I wake up every day with a different battle. I don’t know what my battle is going to be tomorrow, but every day there’s something I have to face and battle.
Everybody has their own battles, and some people are even in battles to get one more day out of life, maybe facing terminal cancer, disease. Some people may be battling a dysfunctional marriage. Some may be battling financially or have an addiction. Mother Cabrini inspires you to fight and to keep going and not give up. That’s the core message of the film.