Ricky D’Ambrose, micro-budget independent filmmaker whose debut series of shorts won acclaim on the international festival circuit – including the Berlinale and New Directors/New Films – made his feature film debut with Notes on an appearance in 2017.
Cathedral, its shrewd, semi-autobiographical sequel, which premiered in Venice last year and then screened at Sundance earlier this year. The film portrays an American family and its two decades of slow dissolution, against the backdrop of the politically and culturally unstable climate of the 80s and 90s in the United States, seen through the eyes of young Jesse Damrosch. It features the same minimalist approach to filmmaking that D’Ambrose has taken when making short films over the years: static shots, slow zooms, and fragmented images, made up of stills, old TV commercials, and film footage. archival news, with a “narrative” provided. by voiceovers and diegetic sound.
Jesse Damrosch recounts how his parents, Richard (Brian d’Arcy James) and Lydia (Monica Barbaro), met, then dramatizes how their rocky union fell apart over time, in part due to the rocky relationship of Richard with Lydia’s family, the Orkins. Their story is like that of many other middle-class families in suburban America: money troubles, death in the family, resentment and gossip, parental divorce and separation. We see birthday celebrations, communion, funerals, family dynamics – in-laws and extended families bickering to care for aging parents, etc. – all dryly told by an anonymous female voice.
The film also comments on the changing times. Richard inherited a printing company from his father, then struggling with the emergence of digital technology.
Time flies by, leaping from Reagan to the Clinton and Bush eras, covering the AIDS crisis, scandals, natural and man-made disasters, wars and terrorism, all seen and heard by Jesse, one-eyed guy clairs who often saw watching there at various ages. D’Ambrose omits most of his own personal experiences. So there’s no scene of teenage rebellion, no mention of friends, no love interests, no moments of joy or disappointment.
In a way, the film is both autobiographical and not at the same time. It’s like he’s the center of everything but also the fly on the wall. He acknowledges the political and cultural climate to which D’Ambrose (and by proxy, Jesse) and his generation are subjected, without any prejudice or judgment.
What we are left with are small, lingering details, like the patterns on old upholstery or the way light hits the rooms in his father’s apartment or the metallic ticking of an old radiator.
D’Ambrose’s aesthetic and economic sensibilities have much in common with contemporary independent filmmakers around the world. I see similarities in the works of Dan Sallitt, Matìas Piñeiros, Bas Devos, Ramon and Silvan Zürcher. Her use of interior spaces in her bedroom pieces is very reminiscent of that of Chantal Akerman.
Yet, with his balanced observations and dense layering of world events mingling with his own childhood memories, Cathedral feels very universal and personal at the same time, as it plays out like an emotionally unencumbered version of Richard Linklater Childhoodakin to the work of Terence Davies.
Cathedral establishes D’Ambrose as one of America’s leading voices in independent cinema, in tune with other contemporary filmmakers on the global independent scene embracing a minimalist aesthetic with a keen observational eye to the world we live in. I welcome it.
The films open September 2, 2022 for a week-long engagement at the Film at Lincoln Center in New York City, then begin streaming exclusively through Mubi.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His thoughts and opinions on all things film and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com