“A quietly affecting and sharp story of upbringing, family, and perspective.”
by Ken Bakely
Spanning decades as families change, grow, shrink, and fall apart, Ricky D’Ambrose’s The Cathedral crams a lot into 88 minutes. “Sprawling epic” is one of those adjective-and-noun combinations that is so familiar – and usually redundant – that it fits firmly into the camp of cliché, but this film manages to split the difference through its tightly controlled but freely wandering style. You could call it an epic that doesn’t sprawl; or maybe it’s sprawling, but not an epic. Told in snippets and vignettes, and crisply narrated by Madeleine James, D’Ambrose begins his story in the 1980s, with the birth of Jesse, to parents Richard (Brian D’Arcy James) and Lydia (Monica Barbaro). It is 1987 and they live on Long Island. Richard has opened a printing business. His brother died two years ago from complications of AIDS, though the family holds that he died after contracting liver disease from improperly cleaned restaurant silverware. There are so many secrets and concealments in this family. Jesse’s parents married after a whirlwind romance, and both their families are either deeply unsettled already, or will get there over time – simmering disagreements, problems over money where it’s coming from, and icy estrangements tear through their lives in jagged lines with very sharp edges. There is a malaise all around that sometimes rises to open meltdown; though there are stalemates and perhaps slight moments of progress, and it would be folly to think that they might escape its eventual reach.
In the middle of it all is Jesse (played at different times in his childhood by Robert Levey II and William Bednar-Carter), but his young age and detachment from the various feuds and crises that arise mean that he is there to observe and to (almost wordlessly) navigate the wreckage that’s left behind. He did not make the choices that have led to relatives going decades without speaking, for aging family members who need care to wind up neglected, or for his father’s company to be one that would collapse with the rise of home computers. But he is part of this story all the same. Those familiar with D’Ambrose’s style know how his camera, perpetually locked down, focuses on single fixations – a tabletop as people move things on and off it, people with their heads just out of frame as they speak, objects dropped or scattered on the floor – and The Cathedral effortlessly uses this approach in service of a comprehensive perspective that offers glimpses of the young artist that Jesse will become by the time he enters college (by which time the film ends). After all, D’Ambrose has envisioned this movie as a work of semi-autobiography, allowing him to use his vision and Jesse’s as one and the same.
There are moments when this erupts into something truly extraordinary. There’s a scene where Jesse, in a high school photography class, talks about a family photo of great significance to him, of his aunts cheerfully together, in what feels like ages ago. He admires not only its content, but its constitution: the play of light and shadow as the sun filters through the window, projected through the trees, and casts shapes on the walls and floor. It’s the same as the visuals that D’Ambrose presents to us in the film – through Jesse’s eyes in an indirect way – observing the small and minute against the chaotic saga evolving around him. The exact date of a particular moment is rarely identified except for an occasional aside in the narration or a quick diegetic glimpse – like the date on the program for Jesse’s high school graduation – but D’Ambrose loads the film with a slew of news clips, seen on television or overheard on the radio. Key events of the 1990s and 2000s come to us, filtered as background noise, passing idly by as they do in childhood, contributing to the texture and rhythm of this engaging mosaic.
While The Cathedral is usually very impressive in how it is able to balance its wide surrounding story with its minimalist perspective, there are times when there’s a tension between the two that it’s not fully able to square. Somewhere in the gap between James’s omnipotent narration – which knows every family story and secret – and the intrinsically small and personalized focus on Jesse’s life, there’s a risk of minimizing the character within the confines of the story, particularly during its long stretches away from him. But far more often, D’Ambrose is able to keep the film’s disparate parts as one conducive whole, aided by a cast which understands the specific approach that his work calls for. All in all, The Cathedral is a quietly affecting and sharp story of upbringing, family, and perspective. It’s about watching these people over time, though maybe able to do nothing else than to see how things got to where they are – a highly instructive choice that allows a constant stream of information and emotion to come directly to us. At the moment, you might not realize how much is changing. The camera doesn’t move. It’s everyone and everything else that does.