If, as Tolstoy put it, happy families are all alike, that’s probably because they’re opaque to the rest of us, for whom friction and rifts are as much a part of the kindred experience as love. Jesse, the hyper-observant only child at the center of Ricky D’Ambrose’s The Cathedral, takes in all the specifics of his unhappy family — not just his parents’ divorce when he’s 10, not just his father’s ongoing struggles, financial and otherwise, but the awkward silences and generational baggage, the rite-of-passage celebrations straining toward grace. The writer-director-editor’s microbudgeted sophomore film, now streaming on Mubi, juxtaposes remembered interactions and still-life shots with a deliberate, elliptical precision, the minor-key notes building to a chord that resounds with the ache of lost time and unexpressed emotions.
Through the eyes of the filmmaker’s alter ego, an artist in the making named Jesse Damrosch who’s born in 1987, the feature unfolds over the final years of the 20th century. The formal compositions of DP Barton Cortright, who also shot D’Ambrose’s Notes on an Appearance, bristle with doleful undercurrents, as if Terence Davies’ indelible Distant Voices, Still Lives had been washed and rinsed in Long Island sunlight.
The Bottom Line
Packs a heartrending punch.
Cast: 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 from AIDS of his father’s brother, a matter that the family treats with denial bordering on delusion, a mute refusal that’s emblematic of much of what occurs over the ensuing years.
Jesse appears onscreen at ages 3 (Hudson McGuire), 9 (Henry Glendon Walter V), 12 (Robert Levey II) and 17 (William Bednar-Carter) — sometimes gazing directly into Cortright’s camera, wide-eyed and curious, sometimes facing an unseen photographer for class photos, and sometimes interacting with his parents and other relatives. D’Ambrose further sculpts the drama via voiceover narration, Madeleine James delivering background details and descriptions of offscreen events with a sympathetic authority.
The story benefits from this sense of omniscience. It’s propelled, at first, by a headlong sense of possibility and beginnings: the marriage of Richard Damrosch (a heartbreaking Brian d’Arcy James) and Lydia Orkin (Monica Barbaro, pitch-perfect in a less developed, more symbolic role) and the birth of their son. In the fictional New York town of Haylett, they buy an apartment and he starts a printing business. A friend (Steven Alonte) provides crucial financial help, while Richard’s father (Gorman John Ruggiero) is mostly emotionally absent. As for his rock-steady, nurturing mother (Melinda Tanner), he’ll never quite get over her death.
There’s 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 seethes and builds to an explosive clash. At the same time, the relatively well-fixed Nick and Flora have all but cut off communication with her sister, Billie (Cynthia Mace, poignant in her brief screen time), apparently over the matter of the care of their mother, Josephine. She’s played by a quietly affecting Candy Dato in what turns out to be a nightmare of dependency. Homeless and at her children’s mercy, Josephine endures a brief stay with her atrocious son (Roy Abramsohn) and his callous wife (Rosanne Rubino), their self-importance underscored by a thundering passage from Shostakovich.
There are other horrors: for starters, the clown and the ventriloquist who make appearances at family parties for Jesse. 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 comic vein, in Somewhere in Queens. D’Ambrose’s overhead shots of the white tablecloths, coffee cups and dessert plates, combined with narration and subtle sound work, deliver a poetic, sharply etched pang.
The film’s static, seemingly uninflected imagery contains 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. A good deal of the family stuff plays out in rooms with a studied, anti-production-design blankness. Production designer Grace Sloan imbues other interiors with the comfortably worn feel of long-inhabited houses in unpresuming suburban towns.
D’Ambrose builds upon the sense of time and place with an astute use of ads — for Kodak film, for coins commemorating the Statue of Liberty’s centennial — as well as news footage of era-defining disasters and other markers of the times: Desert Storm; the crash of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island; the Gary Condit–Chandra Levy scandal; Daniel Pearl’s murder; sensationalist political commentary by Michael Savage about presidential candidate John Kerry; a grief-wracked Nancy Reagan at her husband’s funeral; Hurricane Katrina. The myth-making is built in to these larger, cultural events, D’Ambrose suggests; by contrast, the Damrosches and Orkins, like most every other American family, are left to their own improvisations.
There’s the occasionally barbed and often empty small talk at birthday parties, confirmations and graduations. Ostensibly Jesse is front and center at these get-togethers, but in fact the weight of family drama — and the insistence on maintaining “no attempts to settle differences,” in the narrator’s succinct description — pushes him to the corner, not unlike the way he’s taught in school to move “single file down the hall,” because that’s less trouble for the grown-ups.
The Cathedral captures the awakening of an artist, not only in his drawings and the films he starts making as a teenager, but in the way he sees and responds to the world around him — a book of intricate line drawings absorbs him, and, later, a photograph becomes a window into his family story. D’Ambrose’s drama is attuned to how much sensitive kids keep inside, watching and holding their breath while the adults convince themselves they’re not making a mess of things.
For Jesse, that will mean navigating not just his parents’ divorce but both their 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, brought to exquisite, wounded life by d’Arcy James, vies for validation and redemption amid the impasses and the blowups, and struggles to find the words.