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Exclusive Q&A with the Screenwriter of Cabrini, Rod Barr, ahead of its worldwide premiere

Cabrini, based on the true story of one woman’s fight for the equality, health, and happiness of immigrant orphans, will release in South African cinemas nationwide, simultaneous with the rest of the world, this International Women’s Day, on 8 March 2024. We caught up with the Screenwriter, Rod Barr ahead of the premiere.

Glamour: Cabrini is a captivating story, and I see why it has global appeal, and how a lot of women will relate to her story. She’s relatable, and what she achieves is remarkable. However, you’ve mentioned that you were reluctant to take the story on. What swayed you? And what was the defining moment for you?

Rod Barr: I was reluctant because it was pitched to me as a story of the first American saint. And as soon as I heard that, I thought oh! It’s going to be a pious, boring, typical movie, and I have no interest in that. And then I read about Cabrini; her accomplishments, and it was clear that she was just a powerhouse, a disruptor, revolutionary, and one of the greatest entrepreneurs in the 19th century. The equal of Vanderbilts and Rockerfellers, and the names we know and revere but nobody knew who she was. So as soon as that character started to come into focus, I thought not only do I know that this will be a wonderful movie, but I feel like I have to write it now because this needs to be known and expressed.

The themes that are part of this movie that I hope come across, I believe are things we need in our world today; hope, determination, service to others, love…very basic, transcendent things that are not cynical. We live in a cynical world, and these kinds of themes are uncynical. I think we need that, it’s like a nutrient that lacks, and we don’t even know we lack it until we get it, and then our bodies take in and say that it feels different, why? For these reasons, I felt compelled to write it and to be a part of it.

Image: Supplied

Glamour: You mentioned that she is a powerhouse of a woman and a disruptor on every level. Please elaborate on these qualities?

RB: She was a woman in a man’s world; this is 1890, and she’s coming to America where women can’t vote or own property, and she comes with nothing. No money, a few of her sisters, essentially to found one orphanage but she doesn’t want to just do that. She wants to build an empire of orphanages, hospitals and schools around the world. Her ambitions were astonishing, her goal was still an enormous empire that she intended to build, even in the beginning when she had nothing. Not only was she a woman in a man’s world, she was an Italian woman where Italian immigrants in America were the lowest of the low at the time. They were barely better than animals, and that’s how many Americans considered Italian immigrants. It was cheap labour; go build a tunnel, if it collapses and you guys die, it’s ok, there’s another wave…it was literally that kind of bigotry.

She had very serious obstacles, and nobody believed she could do anything as an Italian woman in New York. She was absolutely powerless but of course she wasn’t because she had this determination, faith and drive to serve, and she just wouldn't let no be the answer. It didn’t matter who you were; you could be the archbishop, the pope, the mayor or the pimp in your local neighbourhood, and you could not get her to step down, you couldn't do it. She would find a way like any mother would to protect and serve her children, except her children were all the immigrants of New York. Eventually, all the immigrants of the world, no matter what nationality because she became the patron saint of all immigrants. She was revolutionary in that way, the things she accomplished were almost literally impossible for the time and place that she achieved them in.

Image: Supplied

Glamour: With that said, would you consider Cabrini’s story a humanising one?

RB: In our world today, we focus on our divisions, and the things that separate us. We tend to forget about the things that already join us, that we already agree on. And these tend to be transcendent values; these are things that any human, and any religion really do agree on. We screened this movie for the most diverse audiences, obviously Catholics tend to like this movie, and Christians of every stripe. We’ve screened it for Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Agnostic, Atheist, people of faith and people with no faith. And they all come away saying and feeling the exact same things in their hearts because these are transcendent human values.

She’s a Catholic woman of course, but she’s really talking about love, hope, determination. It’s an underdog story and every human is an underdog in some form or fashion, we all feel like that. And when we have a story of someone who overcame so many things including her lifetime of poor health, we’re brought together as human beings. It’s very humanising because these values are transcendent and I think that as humans, we already agree on these things, we just don’t get to them often because there’s so much junk politically, culturally and historically that keeps us separate from each other. There are things that transcend all of that and I think this movie and her life speak to those things. It brings out our humanity for sure, because that’s all she was interested in; the human.

Image: Supplied

Glamour: Considering that you wrote it with the intention of challenging stereotypes, would you say your success lies in your ability to to dismantle the stereotypes and transcend barriers of place and time?

RB: Firstly, thank you, that was certainly our intention. Stereotypes are one of those things that tend to separate us all. And one of the fascinating things about Cabrini is that she came to America to work with Italian immigrants in New York. It was a very local mission but it took about 2 or 3 years until she realised that she had to serve immigrants of all nations. It can’t just be Italians anymore; wherever people were coming from to America, and then she eventually went around the world to do the same thing. She realised that she had to serve everyone and that’s a woman who refused to look at stereotypes, they just didn’t exist for her.

She encountered everyone as a human being and for her, that was grounded in her faith. She saw God in everyone, it didn’t matter who they were, what they looked like or where they came from. Her fundamental approach to you was as a human being and child of God. We can have that approach even without the religious aspect, we’re still human beings. If we look deeply in our hearts, we’re all the same. I hope and think that this comes across in the movie.

Glamour: Absolutely! Love is what unifies us, and at the core of it, love is the central theme. How were you able to weave it into the story in a way that audiences are drawn in and and also realise that this is a story about love?

RB: That’s interesting, it’s storytelling. It’s putting humans in situations together and having them talk and interact, and having conflict, having her meet a young woman, Victoria, who’s a prostitute, and doesn’t want anything to do with her. And to see how love can change her life but also how that love comes back to Cabrini. It wasn’t just a one direction, one way street. It never is with love, if it is, it’s not love, really. I mean, it’s not the true part of love, which is sort of this corresponding movement back and forth. It’s about the love that Victoria showed Cabrini in her moment of crisis; Love is a two way street. Cabrini gave a lot, and also received a lot. The art of storytelling is to make these moments and themes very natural, very much part of our people’s lives, and to see how those themes weave into them.

Image: Supplied

Glamour: You mentioned earlier that Cabrini is a deeply uncynical movie in a world where cynicism is prevalent. How were you able to maintain that tone throughout the story considering the weight of themes explored in the movie?

RB: That’s a fascinating question. We do live in cynical and divided times, and most of the media we consume is in some form or fashion ironic or cynical. I like that stuff too, it’s fun. There’s a hunger in the world for something that is uncynical however, something sincerely from the heart. I’ll tell you this, making something cynical is much easier than making a sincere thing because the latter can become very bland, boring, lame and not very interesting. To do something beautiful and uncynical with artistry is way harder than doing something ironic.

I’m very proud of it because I think it cuts against our cultural tendency right now and there’s a lot of pressure to take a side, to make things cynical, and to put quotation marks around everything. We’ve got plenty of that in our culture and maybe we need something else. Maybe if people experience it, they’ll see that there’s a benefit to that. They’ll see that there’s something to it, a nutrient that lacks but didn’t know it lacked until your body takes in and says oh yeah, that! That is actually how I feel. I don’t get to feel or express it very often because the world wants you to do something ironic and angry. Cabrini gets angry; she gets angry in the movie. There’s nothing wrong with anger but for me, the director, and everyone involved, it was about presenting something beautiful, and to do it without fear, and to make something that people can take to heart.

Glamour: This speaks to the role of storytelling in society and the role of art in making people think and reflect. How would you say the process changed you? And what was your biggest takeaway?

RB: It’s been a long process. I started the research 6 years ago, I can even look at my own evolution with regard to Cabrini and this material through that time. I’d say the common thread is love as you mentioned, and hope. I think it changed me in a sense that it raised my bar for how I approach the world and what I think I’m able to do with what I’ve been given, Cabrini was unrelenting in that way. What can you do to make a difference? And don’t limit what that might be. Allow it to be what it will be but work for it, don’t limit it at the outset because you never know. Maybe you can build an empire of hope. Not many of us will but that’s not the message of this movie, that you should go out and build an empire but rather, you can make a beautiful difference in your own world. Go out and do that with an open and sincere heart; you can help and make a difference. That’s how things change.

Image: Supplied

Glamour: That’s beautiful Rod. It speaks to social impact and I can’t wait for the Glamour women and the world to see the movie when it premieres on International Women’s Day. This is significant considering that Cabrini also speaks to how far we've come as women, she’s truly inspirational. In closing, what do you want our audience to know about Cabrini, and herself going forward?

RB: I think Cabrini is one of the great unknown, soon to be known women of world history because she encountered so many obstacles; chauvinism and bigotry because of her gender, nationality, religion and none of that stopped her from fulfilling her mission of love and service. I think there’s a profoundly inspirational quality for women and men… for any human being to look at themselves first as a person of enormous potential and to go about and try to realise that potential, and to not let anything get in the way of that realisation.

It’s certainly important and wonderful that this comes out on International Women’s Day because Cabrini is truly an international woman in the biggest, best sense. And she had an international impact that was basically impossible for a woman to have at that time. For all the women, take the men in your life to this movie, too. Our executive producer says, every woman should see this movie, and every man should see it twice. That would be my dream!

Watch the trailer here

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