If, as Tolstoy put it, happy families are all the same, it’s probably because they’re opaque to the rest of us, for whom friction and splits are just as much a part of the related experience as love. Jesse, the hyper-observant only child at Ricky D’Ambrose’s center The cathedral, takes in all the particulars of his unhappy family—not just his parents’ divorce when he was 10, not just his father’s ongoing struggles, financially and otherwise, but the awkward silences and generational baggage, the rite-of-passage— celebrations that strive for mercy. The writer-director-editor’s sophomore film, now streaming on Mubi, juxtaposes remembered interactions and still lifes with a deliberate, elliptical precision, the minor notes building up to a chord that reverberates with the pain of lost time and unspoken emotions.
Through the eyes of the filmmaker’s alter ego, an artist in the making named Jesse Damrosch, born in 1987, the feature film unfolds in the last years of the 20th century. The formal compositions of DP Barton Cortright, who also shot D’Ambrose’s Notes on appearancefull of sad undercurrents, as if Terence Davies’ indelible Voices in the distance, still lifes was washed and rinsed in the Long Island sunlight.
It comes down to
Packs a heartbreaking punch.
Form: Brian d’Arcy James, Monica Barbaro, Mark Zeisler, Geraldine Singer
Director-Scriptwriter: Ricky D’Ambrose
1 hour 28 minutes
At the heart 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 handles with denial verging on delusion, a stupid refusal that symbolizes for much of what happens in subsequent years.
Jesse appears at ages 3 (Hudson McGuire), 9 (Henry Glendon Walter V), 12 (Robert Levey II), and 17 (William Bednar-Carter) – sometimes staring straight into Cortright’s camera, wide-eyed and curious, sometimes encountering an unseen photographer for class photos, and sometimes interacting with his parents and other relatives. D’Ambrose further sculpts the drama via voiceover, Madeleine James providing background details and descriptions of off-screen events with sympathetic authority.
The story takes advantage of this sense of omniscience. It is propelled at first by a stubborn sense of possibility and a beginning: the marriage of Richard Damrosch (a heartbreaking Brian d’Arcy James) and Lydia Orkin (Monica Barbaro, perfect in a less evolved, more symbolic role) and the birth from their son. In the fictional town of Haylett in 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 usually emotionally absent. As for his rock-solid, caring mother (Melinda Tanner), he will never quite get over her death.
There is tension between Richard and his in-laws, Nick (Mark Zeisler, excellent) and Flora (a wonderful and especially memorable Geraldine Singer), even at the wedding. The animosity boils and builds to an explosive clash. At the same time, relatively well-fixed Nick and Flora have nearly cut off communication with her sister, Billie (Cynthia Mace, poignant in her short screen time), over the issue of caring for their mother, Josephine. She is played by Candy Dato, who is quietly influencing what turns out to be a nightmare of dependency. Homeless and at the mercy of her children, Josephine briefly stays with her hideous son (Roy Abramsohn) and his callous wife (Rosanne Rubino), their self-interest underlined by a thunderous passage from Shostakovich.
There are other horrors: for starters, the clown and ventriloquist who appear for Jesse at family gatherings. 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 comical tone 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, create a poetic, sharply etched stitch.
The film’s static, seemingly uninflected imagery contains a world of memories, the moments in time that persist with a strange urgency, whether or not we understand their emotional underpinnings – and mostly because we don’t. Much of the family stuff takes place in rooms with a studied, anti-production design void. Production designer Grace Sloan imbues other interiors with the comfortably worn-out feel of long-occupied homes in modest suburbs.
D’Ambrose builds on the sense of time and place with an astute use of advertisements – for Kodak film, for coins commemorating the centenary of the Statue of Liberty – as well as news footage of era-defining disasters and other markers of the time: Desert Storm ; the crash of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island; the Gary Condit-Chandra Levy scandal; murder of Daniel Pearl; sensational political commentary by Michael Savage about presidential candidate John Kerry; a sad Nancy Reagan at her husband’s funeral; Hurricane Katrina. The myth-making is built into these larger, cultural events, D’Ambrose suggests; in contrast, the Damroches and Orkins, like most other American families, are left to their own improvisations.
There is the sometimes barbed wire and often empty small talk at birthday parties, confirmations and graduations. Ostensibly, Jesse is central to these gatherings, but in fact the weight of family drama—and the insistence on “no attempts to settle differences,” in the narrator’s succinct description—push him to the corner, not unlike the way he learned at school to move ‘a few files down the hall’ because that is less trouble for the adults.
The cathedral captures an artist’s awakening, not only in his drawings and the films he starts making as a teenager, but also in the way he sees and reacts to the world around him – a book of intricate line art takes him in on, and later a photo becomes a window into his family story. D’Ambrose’s drama is tuned to how many sensitive kids stay indoors, watching, and holding their breath while the adults convince themselves not to mess with it.
For Jesse, that means not only his parents’ divorce, but both of their subsequent marriages, bad news in several ways (the new husbands are played by Matthew Hammond and Myxolydia Tyler). And it will mean knowing how his father, brought to an exquisite, wounded life by d’Arcy James, vie for confirmation and redemption amid the stalemates and explosions, struggling to find the words.