the cathedral ricky d'ambrose

In writer-director Ricky D’Ambrose’s The Cathedral, a narrator helps keep a viewer abreast of a complex family tree and the familial drama at the center of the narrative. But if you lose the thread at moments, don’t worry — that was very much the intention.

“I think it’s fine at certain points for people to lose track of who was the sister of who, or who’s the maternal great grandmother of which character, and how does that relate to what goes on in the funeral, etc. etc. etc. — I think it’s OK for that to be a bit ambiguous for people,” D’Ambrose tells MovieMaker.

Plus, the narrator also serves another purpose.

“I didn’t want to make a film that ran the risk of becoming a movie about middle-class conflicts in the suburbs. I also didn’t want to make a movie that ran the risk of being treated as a coming-of-age story in which we identify primarily with the child. So having that voiceover from a distanced third-person figure was, at least at the time to me, the solution,” he says.

“The narrator has no bearing on anyone in the film, other than as an observer. She’s not a member of the family. She’s not a friend of the family. She is helping keep the viewer distanced in a way that I thought when I was writing the film was important.”

The Cathedral is personal for D’Ambrose in that the large family tree the narrator traces is his own family — and “the child,” he mentions, is a version of himself.

“As I’ve said, ‘Well I’ve changed the names,’ which is really a lousy way of trying to say that you’re protecting people,” D’Ambrose jokes.

But The Cathedral is not out to settle scores or present this aunt or that side of a family in any sort of damaging light. It’s a more abstracted view of the moments that stick with us through adolescence. It’s a film that looks at how sensitive we are as children and how the smallest moments of conflict or underlying tension can linger in our minds decades later.

Hudson McGuire appears 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

Hudson McGuire in The Cathedral by Ricky D’Ambrose. Photo by Barton Cortright/Sundance Institute. Main image: Brian D’Arcy James in the wedding sequence that opens The Cathedral

The viewer can feel the tension between the father character — played by Brian D’Arcy James — and his wife’s parents. Money problems are discussed by different family members throughout. More than once, money is physically counted out.

These are fragments of memories.

“There were a few images or recurring sequences that I had for a number of years when I was thinking about the film. So it was a combination of trying to figure out how to build a film out of these charred pieces that had been with me for a while,” D’Ambrose says.

“The things that I ended up selecting for the script were the things that had just been knocking around in my head for so long, they seemed to take precedence.”

Other sequences didn’t come from memories at all, but were instead constructed from home video footage or restaged photographs.

Ricky D'Ambrose The Cathedral

The Cathedral writer-director Ricky D’Ambrose. Photo by Michael Kohlbrenner

“I have no memory of my parent’s wedding because I wasn’t alive. But, interestingly, one of the founding elements for the movie was a wedding scene that would open the movie.”

D’Ambrose’s mother was an extra in that wedding scene and he notes in our Sundance survey how bizarre it was for her to witness a reenactment of the day she married his father.

D’Ambrose’s family have seen the film, and although “they’re not people who watch very many films,” he notes, they understand what he is setting out to do with the film.

“There was an understanding that this film relays memories of a child or adolescent, who at that time, perhaps didn’t have a way of understanding what he was seeing, of understanding why his grandmother and his grandmother’s sister wouldn’t reconcile at their mother’s funeral, of understanding why his father may have felt hurt or resentment toward his in-laws,” D’Ambrose says.

“Anyone who as a kid, who’s had to be in the unpleasant position of witnessing his father — or either parent — be antagonistic to his other parent’s family or parents, well, that’s a pretty terrifying thing — that the people who are supposed to protect you, or care for you and love you, are being misspoken about by your mother or father. It’s unsettling. With that being said, the way my parents treated the movie was: this is from a point of view of a child.”

The Cathedral is D’Ambrose’s second feature after 2018’s Notes on an Appearance. It received special funding through the Biennale College Cinema program which allowed it to premiere at the Venice Film Festival last Fall. After that premiere, D’Ambrose was itching to expand his audience. He explains:

“After the Venice premiere of the film, I was in a position where I thought, ‘Gee, the showcase of Venice was very important and good and prestigious, but ultimately, I do want people to see this film, and I would like to film to have a life outside of film festivals. I would like the film to have an audience that is larger than the Notes on an Appearance audience.'”

The Cathedral, written and directed by Ricky D’Ambrose, played in the NEXT section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival which runs through January 30. Photos courtesy of Sundance Institute.