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Cabrini: A stunning visual feast with shallow character depths

This story was originally published by Religion Unplugged.

(REVIEW) Angel Studios’ latest film “Cabrini” has haunting visuals and solid messages, but can’t seem to care about the real-life people the movie is based on beyond their status of victim or oppressor.

Angel Studios is on a bit of a streak right now. Hot off a growing and continued successful TV show in “The Chosen”, they began releasing movies in theaters just last year and immediately had a massive box office hit in “Sound of Freedom”. Less than a year later, Angel Studios is releasing the “Sound of Freedom” director’s next film, “Cabrini”.

Of course, the studio is under considerably more scrutiny than it was back when that film was released. While Angel Studios’ fans largely ignored criticisms of the movie “Sound of Freedom” in the mainstream press initially, the latest allegations of its business practices have found credibility even within the faith-based community. Furthermore, the last film Angel Studios hoped would be a hit, the sci-fi thriller “The Shift” didn’t make much of a splash with critics or audiences.

All that to say, I expect Angel Studios is really hoping “Cabrini” will be a big winner for them. We’ll have to see. It wasn’t for me.

The film follows Catholic nun Francesca Cabrini who, after witnessing disease and poverty in the slums of New York among Italian Immigrants, embarks on a daring journey to persuade city officials to provide housing and healthcare for hundreds of orphaned children.

First, let’s establish the good. The cinematography is stunningly atmospheric throughout, with soft blending of shadows and light creating a haunting tone that adds a gloomy spirituality and gravitas to the events. At times, the movie feels positively artistic, between flashbacks in water and the rolling fields outside the city.

If director Alejandro Monteverde invests in pushing some of these more experimental qualities to his imagery, and adds more story-driven variety to the cinematography, he could truly stand head and shoulders visually above any other faith-based filmmakers working today.

The movie is also full of — at least in principle — truly positive real-life heroes and messages. Cabrini clearly seems like a truly worthy Christian heroine to make a movie about. In doing so, they explore a series of themes. We need to welcome immigrants.

When Christians become too enmeshed in trying to please powerful people in order to have the access to power they need in order to do good, they end up compromising on the good. (Something Aaron Renn’s new book “Life in The Negative World”, deals with directly). Racism is bad, and every age has their own kind. Christians have always had to fight against unjust systems to serve God. Women can heroically serve God, and they shouldn’t be prevented from doing so.

Monteverde, who also directed “Bella” in addition to “Sound of Freedom,” clearly has a heart for the poor and the marginalized the way God does, whether it’s the unwed mother (“Bella”), victims of sex trafficking (“Sound of Freedom”) or the immigrant and minority (“Cabrini”). And it’s wonderful to see Christian films so dedicated to portray God’s heart for those things.

I do wish though that someone would kindly pull Monteverde aside and inform him that more emotions exist besides just pity and moral outrage. Every single scene and every single character exist in this film only to elicit those two emotions.

A child is poor and hungry. Pity.

An adult refuses to help. Moral outrage.

Cabrini asks for help and no one will help her. Pity AND moral outrage. And on and on until the movie ends.

We never really get to know Cabrini, the victims she’s trying to help, her fellow nuns or her enemies really, beyond their functions as saint, victim and enemy. The people are not so much characters, but function as emojis meant to signal the flattest possible version of these binary emotions to the audience. We don’t get to know Cabrini or any of the other characters beyond their ability to elicit these emotions from us. I can’t tell you anything about the orphans or Cabrini’s sisters. We never see Cabrini laugh or share love or friendship with anyone. They are victims, obstacles, props and nothing more.

This isn’t just an issue with Cabrini. Monteverde’s first film, “Bella” a softly pro-life film about an unwed mother was also primarily driven by pity (for Bella) and moral outrage (to her boss who fired her), although it still allowed itself a bit more range of emotion and empathy (particularly between the brothers). “Sound of Freedom” was just like Cabrini in that all the characters served merely as vehicles for pity and moral outrage, where the sex trafficking victims were the objects of pity, the traffickers objects of outrage and Jim Cavizel switching between pitying Jim Cavizel face and morally outraged Jim Cavizel face, only showing slightly more emotion than Cabrini’s indignant librarian face.

The problem is that not only does a movie become boring when it’s just the same two emotions over and over — as Robert MckGee laid out in his iconic screenwriting book “Story” — but it’s actually toxic to learn to see people as objects of pity or moral disgust rather than fully fleshed out people you can love or understand.

It teaches us to love victims merely as victims, who exist to be used to satisfy our need to be a savior, and to hate those who stand in our way — or who we’ve been told stand in our way. As psychology professor Paul Bloom points out in “Against Empathy,” this is why politicians use this same tactic, telling stories of helpless victims who need you to save them and enemies who want to stand in the way.

We saw this on display in the aftermath of “Sound of Freedom.” When that movie came out, multiple survivors criticized the film for what they saw as giving a deceptive look at how sex trafficking actually looks. Survivors then got harassed online by fans of the film, who accused them of being secret pedophiles — because who but a pedophile or sex trafficker could object to this movie? So these “Sound of Freedom” fans victimized over again the people that they claimed to be fighting for.

It’s interesting to see now that the faith-based film industry has grown enough to have a few popular filmmakers with a few films each under their belt that you can kind of pinpoint what each of them brings to the table.

The Kendrick Brothers (“Fireproof” and “War Room”) make sermons broken up by dad jokes, while the Erwin Brothers make feel-good inspirational family TV dramas (“I Can Only Imagine” and “Jesus Revolution”). Monteverde, meanwhile, makes atmospheric political campaign ads which tug at your heartstrings and then point you to a way to give money for a political cause once you’re good and fired up by the movie’s message.

But this is also a source of optimism and a credit to the faith-based film audience. Because, once upon a time, the “God’s Not Dead” franchise was the “political” Christian film of choice for faith-based audiences.

But now, Monteverde’s films are the standard-bearers — far superior both artistically and morally than the God’s Not Dead films ever were. So when Christians were given a better version of what they were looking for — movies about Christians engaging politically with the current cultural moment — they jumped to the better one. This should give filmmakers some hope for creating better content for Christians.

It wouldn’t be hard for Monteverde to become a better version of himself. All he needs is to tell stories where he’s interested in his characters beyond their status as victim, oppressor or savior. Who is Cabrini beyond a savior? Who is the orphan beyond a victim? Who is the mayor beyond an oppressor? If he does that, perhaps he can help our nation do the same.

“Cabrini” will be released in theaters on March 8.

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