The Cathedral movie review & film summary (2022)

Jesse barely says a word throughout, and the voiceover, interestingly enough, is only concerned with the adult melodramas. Half the time I wanted to interrupt that chilly voice and say, “How is Jesse doing? What are his interests? Does he have friends? How is he doing? Why isn’t anyone concerned with how Jesse is doing?” This is what the distant style provides, and this is what is reminiscent of Henry James’ novella. The adults are so self-consumed, so defensive, they expose all their ugliness to a six-year-old, without once considering the impact.

I read a review of “The Cathedral” where Jesse is described, inexplicably, as “calm and unperturbed.” I saw a child who senses that the adults around him are unpredictable, selfish and petty. Understandably, he dissociates as a survival technique.

The acting in “The Cathedral” feels “caught on camera” rather than “performed.” The acting is reminiscent of what Joanna Hogg’s actors achieve: Hogg places the camera at the edge of a room, letting people walk in and out of frame, conversations overheard from the next room. This requires a documentary-like reality in performance. D’Ambrose focuses on feet, hands, ancillary details, as conversations are heard in voiceover: sometimes the conversation is polite banter, but with all this underlying stuff underneath. Actors have to be so on point with this style. Even with only one or two close-ups, Brian d’Arcy James gives an extremely insightful (and upsetting) performance of a man seething with self-pity and rage, who feels like the world has let him down, who feels like the world should be more welcoming to him. At one point, on a grim vacation to Atlantic City with his son and his new wife, all the hotels are booked up since he called at the last minute. He slams the phone down saying, “Nothing is easy.” Richard can be scary. He ruins family gatherings. Everyone cowers, afraid of what he will do.

Late in the film, the teenage Jesse, interested in photography and filmmaking, explains (in voiceover, presumably in a class) what a photo of his two aunts, lolling on his parents’ bed, in happier days, means to him. Jesse analyzes the room, the light, details we’ve already seen in still-life scattered through the film. There’s a mournfulness in this monologue, although the mournfulness is subtext, not text. Jesse’s focus is on the material details. The chaos of his childhood—the pain inflicted on him by the adults around him behaving in scary unforgiving ways—is there for him in the way the light falls on a rug. It will be with him always. 

Now playing in select theaters. 

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