If, as Tolstoy said, happy families are all the same, it is probably because they are opaque to the rest of us, for whom friction and rupture are as much a part of the family experience as love. Jesse, the hyper-observant only child at the center of Ricky D’Ambrose’s life Cathedral, breaks down all the details of his unhappy family: not just his parents’ divorce when he was 10, not just his father’s ongoing struggles, financial and otherwise, but also the awkward silences and generational baggage, the celebrations of the initiation rite who strive to achieve grace. . The micro-budget sophomore film from the writer-director-editor, now streaming on Mubi, juxtaposes remembered interactions and still-life shots with deliberate, elliptical precision, notes in a minor key building into a chord that resonates with the pain of lost time and unexpressed emotions. .
Through the eyes of the filmmaker’s alter ego, a budding artist named Jesse Damrosch who was born in 1987, the film unfolds throughout the closing years of the 20th century. The formal compositions of cinematographer Barton Cortright, who also shot D’Ambrose’s films Notes on an apparitionbristling with sad undercurrents, as if the indelible Terence Davies Distant voices, still lifes it had been washed and rinsed in the Long Island sunlight.
The bottom line
It packs a punch.
To emit: Brian d’Arcy James, Monica Barbaro, Mark Zeisler, Geraldine Singer
Director-screenwriter: Ricky D’Ambrose
1 hour 28 minutes
At the base of the drama’s fractured family tree is an event that takes place before Jesse is born: the death of his father’s brother from AIDS, an issue the family deals with in denial that borders on illusion, a mute denial that is emblematic of much that occurs in the following years.
Jesse appears onscreen at age 3 (Hudson McGuire), 9 (Henry Glendon Walter V), 12 (Robert Levey II), and 17 (William Bednar-Carter), sometimes looking directly into Cortright’s camera, eyes wide. and curious, sometimes in front of an unseen photographer for class photos and sometimes interacting with their parents and other relatives. D’Ambrose further sculpts the drama through voice-over narration, Madeleine James providing background details and descriptions of off-screen events with sympathetic authority.
The story benefits from this sense of omniscience. It is driven, at first, by a rushing sense of possibility and beginnings: the marriage of Richard Damrosch (a heartbreaking Brian d’Arcy James) and Lydia Orkin (Monica Barbaro, perfect in a less developed and more symbolic role) and the birth of your son. In Haylett’s fictional town of New York, they buy an apartment and he starts a printing company. A friend (Steven Alonte) provides crucial financial help, while Richard’s father (Gorman John Ruggiero) is mostly emotionally absent. As for his rock-solid, loving mother (Melinda Tanner), he will never get over her death.
There is tension between Richard and his in-laws, Nick (Mark Zeisler, excellent) and Flora (a superb and especially memorable Geraldine Singer), even at the wedding. The animosity boils over and turns into an explosive clash. At the same time, Nick and Flora, relatively well-groomed, have almost cut off communication with her sister, Billie (Cynthia Mace, poignant in her brief screen time), apparently over the matter of caring for her mother, Josephine. . She is played by Candy Dato, who affects silently, in what turns out to be a dependency nightmare. Homeless and at the mercy of her children, Josephine endures a brief sojourn with her atrocious son (Roy Abramsohn) and her callous wife (Rosanne Rubino), her vanity underscored by a thunderous passage from Shostakovich.
There are other horrors: For starters, the clown and the ventriloquist who make appearances at Jesse’s family parties. Some of these gatherings take place in banquet halls, a particular aspect of middle-class New York that Ray Romano explores, in a slightly more comedic vein, in somewhere in queens. D’Ambrose’s aerial shots of the white tablecloths, coffee cups, and dessert plates, combined with the narration and subtle sound work, provide a sharply recorded, poetic stab.
The film’s static, seemingly inflected images contain a world of memory, the moments in time that persist with a strange urgency, whether or not we understand their emotional underpinnings, and usually because we don’t. Much of the familiar stuff takes place in rooms with a studied void and anti-production design. Production designer Grace Sloan imbues other interiors with the comfortable feel of long-occupied homes in unassuming suburban towns.
D’Ambrose builds on a sense of time and place with astute use of advertisements (for Kodak film, for coins commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty), as well as era-defining disaster news images and other era markers: Desert Storm; the crash of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island; the Gary Condit-Chandra Levy scandal; the murder of Daniel Pearl; sensational political comment by Michael Savage on presidential candidate John Kerry; a grief-stricken Nancy Reagan at her husband’s funeral; Hurricane Katrina. Mythmaking is embedded in these larger cultural events, D’Ambrose suggests; instead, the Damrosches and Orkins, like most other American families, are left to their own devices.
There’s the occasionally acerbic and often empty small talk at birthday parties, confirmations, and graduations. Jesse is ostensibly front and center of these meetings, but in fact the weight of the family drama, and the insistence on maintaining “no attempt to resolve differences,” in the narrator’s succinct description, pushes him into a corner, not unlike the way you’ve been taught in school to move “in single file down the aisle,” because that’s less of a problem for adults.
Cathedral captures the awakening of an artist, not just in his drawings and the movies he starts making as a teenager, but in the way he sees and responds to the world around him: a book of intricate drawings absorbs him and, later, A photograph becomes a window into your family’s history. D’Ambrose’s drama is attuned to the sensibilities of children, who watch and hold their breath as adults convince themselves that they are not making a mess.
For Jesse, that will mean navigating not only her parents’ divorce, but her subsequent marriages, bad news in different ways (the new spouses are played by Matthew Hammond and Myxolydia Tyler). And it will mean knowing how his father, given an exquisite and wounded life by d’Arcy James, competes for validation and redemption amid dead ends and explosions, and struggles for words.
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