Sundance Review: The Cathedral
Early in Ricky D’Ambrose’s experimental epic The Cathedral, the young Jesse, the filmmaker’s stand-in, sits and watches a TV commercial from the late 80s. His family swirls around him. It’s a delicate place-setter for the film to come, which fails to live up to the promise of that nuanced evocation of the specific time, place, and feeling of growing up amidst a maelstrom.
The Cathedral covers the two decades from 1986 to 2006 – in a short 87 minutes, it should be said – tracking Jesse’s growth through a prism of his memories of family. It takes place in in the tristate area, but the weather is always warm. The sun is always shining. Ricky/Jesse doesn’t have memories at night or during winter, it would seem (he says just about as much later). That Jesse is a complete nothing of a character seems purposeful – a blank slate that takes in the world around him – but intention isn’t enough to forgive such an odd decision.
More painful are the increasingly blunt attempts to root Jesse’s upbringing to the world around him. News clips from Presidential elections and Desert Storm have no apparent tie-in to any thematic or narrative moments, and seem to merely exist to say “here’s what year we’re in now” or “look, this was happening too!” By the time we stare at Jesse sitting on his bed with the sun coming up outside his window, it’s difficult to muster the energy for an eye-roll at the all-too-predictable radio broadcast with its zippy “good morning folks, it’s Tuesday, September 11th.” And suddenly, it’s years later once again.
Brian d’Arcy James seems to sink into the role of Richard Damrosch (the lack of creativity in riffing off his own name, D’Ambrose, is another example of the director’s on-the-nose approach). Monica Barbaro serves well as Lydia, though she plays a very one-dimensional role of “mother!” that you’d imagine a young boy would create for her in his first home movie. Though this becomes more than a bit curious when no attempts at aging her are made, and by the film’s end – 20 years in 87 minutes, though it felt longer – she looks just a few years older than her 18-year-old son.
Even on a moment-to-moment basis, The Cathedral confounds. Aside from a funny moment during Jesse’s confirmation, the dialogue is stilted and mundane. Boring moments from daily life are spoken with all the pained intensity of someone extraordinary being told to act normal. This film is an act at recapturing memory, so it’s possible to defend its search for meaning by noting that all of this – the bad dialogue, the pointless contextual scenes, even the empty boy at its center – was done on purpose. Even if that’s true, by the end of its runtime, The Cathedral did not achieve any purpose for this viewer.