Cabrini is a film that spurs you to ask yourself what you can do to make the world a better place. The subject of this biopic is Francis Cabrini, the founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and a woman whose charitable efforts absolutely made the world a better place. Films of this nature can be stuffy. This one is not. Although highly reverent to its subject, director Alejandro Monteverde (Sound of Freedom) tells a stirring, entertaining story that celebrates the power of a strong-willed woman of faith in a male-dominated world.

Cristiana Dell’Anna gives a powerfully understated performance as Mother Cabrini. She approaches Pope Leo XIII (Giancarlo Giannini) asking permission to begin a global mission to help children in need. He agrees, provided she start in New York City, where immigrant Italian kids are living in ramshackle huts and even down in the sewers. Once there, Mother Cabrini attempts to win over the local archbishop, Corrigan (David Morse), and clashes with the city’s mayor (John Lithgow). Her willingness to stand up to powerful men allows her to open an orphanage, then grow it several times over.

The production design in Cabrini is outstanding. You can feel the filth and grime the orphaned children in Five Points live in. That, in turn, helps to convey the deep meaning of what Mother Cabrini and her fellow sisters do. A particularly touching moment finds them bathing a young boy, putting him in nice clothes, then standing him in front of a mirror so he can see how handsome he is. (I choked up a bit at that.) Those sorts of cumulative little victories give the central character the confidence she needs to keep pushing ahead, no matter how many barriers get in her way – and there are a lot of barriers.

Momentum generated by Mother Cabrini is what gives the film itself momentum. We really get wrapped up in watching this force of nature take on whatever comes her way. The screenplay by Rod Barr is smartly structured like an underdog story, up to and including the point right before the third act where it temporarily seems as though all hope is lost. Having that structure gets us rooting for her the same way we might have rooted for somebody like Rocky Balboa. The peril of a biopic becoming a filmed Wikipedia page evaporates when our emotional investment is so strongly earned.

Many of the best scenes are between Dell’Anna and Morse or Giannini. They dig into the patriarchy of the Catholic Church, where women historically got sidelined. In these sections, the odds against Mother Cabrini are most fully felt. Here’s a woman who wants to do great things. She has to fight for that right because tradition has a firm grasp on the religion. When finally allowed to do what she wants, the character brings great pride to the church. Watching the men’s resolve fade in the wake of her logic is satisfying.

Cabrini takes you through the gamut of emotions. Parts of it are intensely dramatic, others unexpectedly humorous. Thinking about what the children go through is scary. Most important of all, realizing what Mother Cabrini accomplishes is downright inspiring, as it reminds us we all have the power to make a difference. This is destined to be one of the biggest feel-good movies of the year.

out of four

Cabrini is rated PG-13 for thematic material, some violence, language, and smoking. The running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes.