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‹ Flicks with The Film Snob

The Cathedral

July 25, 2023
Flicks with The Film Snob
Flicks with The Film Snob
The Cathedral

A portrait of a normal seeming American family, with a subversive style revealing its inherent dysfunction.

The Cathedral, the remarkable sophomore feature by Ricky D’Ambrose, is a subtle drama of an average-seeming extended middle class New Jersey family from the 1980s through the early 2000s. The central couple is Richard Damrosch, who owns a printing business, and his beautiful wife Lydia. They get married in the ‘80s, and have a son together, Jesse.

We watch certain scenes, some of key events like the wedding, others banal and everyday, and the only backstory we get is provided by an occasional female voice-over, drily explaining the basic situations and relationships. Lydia’s father does not like Richard. Richard’s parents are distant. There’s a grandmother that gets resentfully shuffled around between different adult children. Lydia’s mother and aunt are hostile and end up not speaking to each other for years. In the beginning I said that this is an average-seeming family, and that’s one of the film’s brilliant achievements, to take a so-called “normal” family and reveal, without drama, the bleak dysfunction at its core.

Most striking in this respect is the father, Richard, played with alarming assurance by Brian d’Arcy James. Richard, we discover, is a narcissist filled with resentment and self-pity, compelled to make scenes that ruin even the most benign family gatherings. He and Lydia divorce after a few years. They both get remarried. Still, the emotional chaos continues, swirling around the life of their quiet, withdrawn son Jesse, played by four different young actors from the ages of 3 to 18. And here is another key to the movie’s unusual style and effect.

We don’t see or hear very much of Jesse, even when he gets older and more vocal. And yet the entire film is in a sense filtered through his experience. I don’t mean that it’s shot from his point of view—there are many scenes in which he’s not present. But we, the audience, outside of the cryptic general statements by the narrator, only know what Jesse knows. All the simple, often petty emotional interactions are set against a blank background: what’s all this about? D’Ambrose captures perfectly a young person’s incomplete awareness, and indeed confusion, about the disturbing family dynamic into which he has been born.

The director’s odd camera angles—often putting events at a distance—combined with the naturalistic behavior and dialogue (it’s as if a camera just happened to be running off in a corner somewhere), and some extremely creative sound design, create a truly disorienting yet creepy and familiar atmosphere. Everything is invested with secrets, with the important thing being that much of what’s going on is a secret to the people themselves. There’s something basically wrong with everyone’s relationship to reality, an unconscious misunderstanding that affects everything they say and do. In the midst of it all, we see Jesse emerging, in what seems probably D’Ambrose’s autobiographical sense, as a quiet and serious young man who has spent his childhood protecting himself from the storm around him, developing an intense interest in photography.

The film’s title, The Cathedral, is taken from a scene in which Jesse as a boy is copying a picture of a cathedral from a book. Whatever metaphorical path we may follow from there is up to us. The Cathedral is a paradoxically compassionate film; throughout its portrait of distress there’s a commitment to truth focusing our vision.

child,   divorce,   family,   secrets,   unconscious,  


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