IFFR 2022 review: The Cathedral (Ricky D’Ambrose)

“The authenticity it lends The Cathedral makes it the film that it is, a lovingly crafted, intimate family history that doubles as a portrait of a country in constant turmoil and decline.”

In our previous IFFR review we saw the disintegration of a family at the peak of their power as a metaphor for an empire sliding into decline. The Cathedral in a sense does exactly the same, albeit with a different empire (16th century Portugal has made place for 21st century United States) and in more obvious ways. Ricky D’Ambrose’s second feature film tracks the dynamics of a family through the eyes of the son (a stand-in for D’Ambrose himself) from the ’80s until the mid-aughts, and it uses archive footage from major events to mark the points in time within this 20-odd year period. In one such clip we see former president Bill Clinton giving a State of the Union address in which he says that Americans are fortunate to be alive at that point in history. When you look at some of the other footage, such as 1993’s World Trade Center bombing, the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the events of 9/11 and more, it is clear that this statement is far from the truth and that America during the period the film covers was in a state of constant disarray. When looking at the past decade, with its increasing polarization and rising racial tensions, you can’t say it has gotten any better. And so The Cathedral is as much a document of D’Ambrose’s family as it is a history of a country in a downward spiral.

Around the mid-point of the 1980s, Richard Damrosch (Brian d’Arcy James) marries Lydia (Monica Barbaro). It doesn’t take long for Lydia to get pregnant and give birth to a son, Jesse (who is played by Robert Levey II, William Bednar-Carter, and Hudson McGuire respectively as the story progresses). Initially Richard’s printing business is booming, and money flows into the Damrosch household at a steady pace, which allows them to live a life of relative wealth. Then Black Monday happens and the downfall begins. Resentment and bitterness creep in, and eventually Richard and Lydia divorce. Seen through the eyes of the sensitive and withdrawn Jesse the trials and tribulations of the Damrosch family (including the extended part of it) are portrayed alongside the recurring upheaval of the United States, be it financial, political, or otherwise.

The Cathedral is D’Ambrose’s autobiographical look at his own childhood, and while this is not apparent at first, Jesse’s fascination with light and how it plays on surfaces is an early hint that we are looking at a budding filmmaker (as he reaches adolescence, Jesse indeed shows a keen interest in the art). But the director mostly portrays himself as an observer of his family history instead of an actual participant in it. The Cathedral is a frank look at that history, and the Damrosch family is a stand-in for many middle-class families in the US that went through the larger events of the era, so the film is both an intimate portrait and a reflection of the time. The most interesting part is the juxtaposition of archive footage of the major events of the period and D’Ambrose’s choice to omit the major events in his own family’s history, relying on inference and implication to understand what transpires between family members. Whether this was a stylistic choice or a personal one on D’Ambrose’s part is not clear, although it has to be said that he doesn’t spare his family. In particular his dad comes off as a disillusioned and bitter man once things go south (magnificently played by d’Arcy James), which makes it surprising that a number of scenes are shot in the apartment D’Ambrose’s father still lives in, including the bedroom/office that had a particular influence on D’Ambrose when it comes to his interest in capturing light and in filmmaking. Shot on a relatively small budget, including a 150k grant from Venice’s Biennale College where the film had its world premiere last year, The Cathedral works best as the portrayal of an era, both on an intimate level and on a larger scale, and the honesty which D’Ambrose invests in it shines through.

Given that small budget, it has to be said that the artistic departments work miracles here. From the production design to hair and makeup, and from the costumes down to the lensing, the various time periods are rendered to the finest detail, creating a stunningly accurate overall look for the film. Sadly, this film being underseen means that any awards traction that some of the work here clearly deserves is a distant fantasy. The authenticity it lends The Cathedral makes it the film that it is, a lovingly crafted, intimate family history that doubles as a portrait of a country in constant turmoil and decline.