‘Cabrini’ Actress Cristiana Dell’Anna on Bringing a Saint to Life in New Movie

Reflecting on what compelled her most in bringing St. Frances Cabrini to life, the actress also discusses the role of music in the film, including the voice of Andrea Bocelli.

Cristiana Dell’Anna portrays St. Frances Cabrini in a new movie coming to theaters March 8, 2024.
Cristiana Dell’Anna portrays St. Frances Cabrini in a new movie coming to theaters March 8, 2024. (photo: Angel Studios)

Cristiana Dell’Anna gives a magnificent performance as she brings St. Frances Cabrini to life on the big screen in the new film Cabrini. Born in Naples, Italy, and bilingual from age 10, she is an award-winning actress whose films for screen and television have been seen in America and Europe. Off-screen, Dell’Anna is a gracious person who, with care and thought, had a conversation with the Register about her role as Mother Cabrini, its potential impact, and her hopes for the film when it is released nationwide on March 8.


When you were offered the role, what made you decide to portray Mother Cabrini?

Surely the fact that she was such a strong woman. She’s an inspirational figure, that’s for sure: her relentlessness and what she stood for — her values — the fact that she believed in a more equal world and she acted in that direction.

She wasn’t just contemplating the idea. She did something to make it happen. This aspect of her is the one thing I really appreciated about her. She had a vision. And she created a reality — and not just for herself, for everybody to see and try to make it real. She was a special woman. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to be her for a while.


Playing her, did you find anything most difficult to do?

No, I don’t think so. Once the story was really clear to me — there was probably a technicality that could have been difficult — I imagined her as a developing character throughout the story because she arrives in New York as an immigrant herself. So she has no knowledge of that new world. And she has to walk her way through it, just as everybody else. Plus, she has to help other people.

Who better than her can understand the needs of the poor immigrant, because she was experiencing pretty much the same thing. So I wanted her to develop into a more self-aware woman, in a way. The more she experienced living in America, in New York, the more she had confidence.

So going back and forth in the story, because we don’t go in chronological order [when filming], but we have some needs — technical necessities — when you shoot a movie, I had to have that very clear in mind. But that was the only difficult bit. But in terms of what she was, nothing was particularly difficult.

What was difficult was that sometimes it really got emotional. I am not the kind of actor that goes home and can’t shake the character off. I don’t do that at all. The moment I’m off set, I’m myself and back to my life. But I felt emotional many days [while filming this movie]; so that was probably a hard part because when it was an emotional scene — when we shot the hospital scene — when I got home, I was miserable the whole day. I found it really hard to fall asleep just because I had gone through all that experience for so many takes, so many times. And it just stayed with me for a while. But once I understood who she was, once I was her, I was her and it wasn’t difficult to see myself in it, consider myself being her. It was a wonderful journey.


And the opposite side of the coin, what was the easiest part of portraying her?

I like this question … but there is an easy part sometimes. She is a strong woman. I tend to see myself as one. We all have our difficulties and weaknesses. But when she says the line, “You can serve your purpose or you can serve your weakness,” Alejandro [Monteverde, the director] was always stressing the fact that that could be the worst line ever delivered, or a very meaningful one — along with another line, “The world is too small for what I intend to do.” And I truly believe in those two things.

I told him, “Don’t worry; I’ll know how to say them.” I understand these two lines. That was the easy part for me. I really do live by it. I do live by, “You can serve your purpose. You can serve your weakness.” I’ve tried to build my life around that. We all have weaknesses, but if we follow them, it will be a waste of a lifetime. And I always try to go the other direction. So I knew exactly what she meant.


What especially helped you prepare for this role?

Many things. There was one thing I remember I did, which I enjoyed very much, when I had retired to Buffalo to study and be on my own. I needed to be away from everything to understand also what solitude meant. And certainly our sense of solitude, that I needed to incorporate in the research into being her. She was surrounded by people who helped her, of course, but she was alone, especially in many ways.

But I remember I did this one very enjoyable thing, which was: I read the script listening to opera music over and over again. When I read the script, at the time, I was listening to Pavarotti, some other opera singers, tenors, but it led me towards the right direction. So I used it a lot, and it was quite fun to do as well.

It helped because the script all of a sudden made sense with opera music. It’s a color that you give to a piece of art — dramatic art, in our case. But it helped somehow that music untied some knots and opened doors into what she was and what her story was. It’s very hard to describe, very hard to explain. It’s a magical thing that happens. It’s the power of music. Andrea Bocelli sang the main theme with his daughter, Victoria, who plays one of the orphans. And that’s what I mean. If you listen to their music [the original duet Dare to Be over closing credits], you’ll understand there’s a power [in the music] and that message [of the song], especially in the words that he sings.


What do you hope that young women will take away from seeing this movie?

Don’t take “No” for an answer. Write your own narrative, your own story. Feel empowered to do so. She was that. She represented that. And I liked the fact that women could really be anything they want to, whatever the habit they wear, be it normal [attire], or a habit like Cabrini did. You really don’t need anyone to tell you how to lead your life. And she really stood for that.

There’s one particular scene, it’s a very small moment, with Victoria Bocelli. I’m brushing her hair, and we smile and we touch both hands. It’s a very simple little moment that we have together, a woman to a woman. And that’s actually true. I put that action in the movie. I wanted to brush her hair. I told Alejandro that I really wanted to do it because I read it in one of her [Cabrini’s] biographies. She did it because she wanted the girls to feel comfortable. That was one action, one little tiny gesture of love and appreciation. So I just thought that was very meaningful. I hope they can see that.


How about men? What can they take away from this film, especially in light of an ironic offhand compliment the mayor of New York pays to Cabrini?

The question kind of answers itself. I just want them to open their eyes and see how true that is. That doesn’t mean putting women above men in some ways, but just that women are so much more than what society has chosen for us for centuries. We are capable of so much more. 

I believe that Mother Cabrini was a mother without having any children. ...

And mothering isn’t the only role. I mean, she built hospitals. She was an entrepreneur. She was a social fighter. She understood the political mechanisms behind her. She was a leader. 


How do you hope Cabrini will change or affect viewers in the way they see people?

Well, it’s another perspective on things; it’s another story to add to the world’s narrative. It’s a new piece of information about a woman who did something great. I don’t think one movie can change the world. Definitely the storytelling that it has in common with all the other things that we happen to read or other movies we would watch will help the cause and will help shape the world in a better way.

I’m hoping that people will take the example and understand more about the world through her and how she actually impacted American history. She really put into practice the very fundamentals of what became the foundations of this country. ... At some point, she sees the Statue of Liberty, and she takes inspiration. I took inspiration from the poem [The New Colossus] written on the book that she’s holding — “Send these, the … tempest-tost to me.”


Would you look to do roles like this again? Maybe another saint?

Never say never! Even though I tend to try different things all the time. But if another beautiful role comes along, and she happens to be a nun? I don’t see why I should say, “No.” We’ll see. You never know.


Do you have any other particular hopes for the movie once it’s released?

I hope everyone sees it! I want everyone in the world to see it! Then the story becomes the viewers’ story, the readers’ story. It’s not in your hands anymore. A story is always a dialogue. It’s never one-way. In order to tell the story, you need to have a listener. So that’s why it’s always a dialogue.

I’m just hoping that people will receive it well. I hope it will stay with people for a while because they care about it. I put so much work into it. So I’m just hoping that it will stay with people. Just like movies that I grew up with stayed with me for the rest of my life and impacted my life, I’m just hoping that it will do the same.

This interview was updated after posting.