The Cathedral [2022]: ‘Sundance’ Review – An experimental and meditative family portrait that looks at the ever-changing American landscape

An unknown and unseen narrator voices the opening moments of Ricky D’Ambrose’s extremely personal “The Cathedral.” This voice introduces us to a man and later to a woman and their respective extended families, along with the walls, the objects, and the light that encompasses their life. D’Ambrose allows a single bit of history (read: a personal tragedy due to the AIDS epidemic) to establish both the time when America started seeing a shift in its cultural inclination, and the personal social standing of the people who define this story.

D’Ambrose’s film is heavily structured in a template, essay-film sort of way. It is almost experimental to the tee and you either accept the world the filmmaker is showing, or you don’t. Characters are important to the overall story progression, but at the same time, they are subsidiaries to the narrative that relies more on the context, than it does on people. 

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For instance, family portraits, especially the ones where the crux is established on a sort of dysfunctionality, often rely on heavy emotional lifting. D’Ambrose’s choice of making this a mood-piece, almost similar to flipping a family album, closely intercuts through the baggage of emotional investment. What he does instead is slide through memories and changes via a shape-shifting American landscape. 

Siena Marino, Steven Alonte, Brian d’Arcy James, Madeline Hudelson and Monica Barbaro appear in The Cathedral by Ricky D’Ambrose, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Barton Cortright.

However, for the sake of introduction, the film is about Jesse Damrosch, the first and only child of American couple Lydia Damrosch (Monica Barbaro) & Richard Damrosch (Brian d’Arcy James). It follows his life, firstly through his father’s big business risk, buying a huge apartment, and then through various family feuds, deaths, and eventual shattering of his parent’s marriage. 

Cautiously, this is not a character-driven film. For people who check into it expecting a Sundance joint, The Cathedral would be a disappointment. It is anything but that. In fact, it is far away from it.  A participant of the 2021 Biennale College Cinema program, this is a film about objects. D’Ambrose’s motive is clearer as the day. He shoots the entirety of this crumbling family saga, through the lens of a voyeur.

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Cinematographer Bart Cortright shoots the film with static camera angles. Invertedly, the things around the characters are more in focus than the characters themselves. Of course, the light is another important aspect of the film, because both Cortright and D’Ambrose seem to have a mutual understanding that images are more important than the people who populate them. And thus, we see a meditative and often poetic look at a child’s life being shaped through time. 

Madeline Hudelson, Hudson McGuire, Siena Marino and Monica Barbaro appear in The Cathedral by Ricky D’Ambrose, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Barton Cortright.

What I really liked about the film is just how well D’Ambrose knows that no story can take place without being political. He shows his father’s rise and eventual fall due to the changes in the working structure. These times are punctuated by the footage of America’s turnaround over two decades of changing Presidents. However, what really sticks with you is his ability to find a truly personal, poignant, and cathartic moment in all of it. 

One of my favorite moments comes when Jesse is asked to present and talk about a picture in a photography class. This feels like one of those small moments that don’t feel all that important. However, when presented within the context of an essay-like film, it truly becomes a moment that shapes a life. 

“The Cathedral” is what I would call a really observant and original portrayal of personal spaces. The only film that I could draw parallels to  would be Catarina Vasconcelos’s “The Metamorphosis of Birds.”  Pretty much like that film, D’Ambrose’s film creates a snapshot that feels almost Bressonian. And yet, truly unique on its own.




The Cathedral Trailer from Visit Films on Vimeo.

The Cathedral (2022) Links – IMDb
The Cathedral (2022) Cast – Monica Barbaro, Brian d’Arcy James, Geraldine Singer
Shikhar Verma

Getting fat with the wife. Absolutely loves the all-consuming, indulgent world of cinema.