What is the fabric of our education? The memories we will reflect on after these years are often not what we can hold on to in a moment filtered and refracted through a thousand other experiences. After his first one-hour feature film Notes on an appearance, the Bressonian style of Ricky D’Ambrose continues with Cathedral, a less intellectually rigorous outing that still impresses with its sense of personal meaning, recreating fragments of life’s experience spanning some two decades to form a living memory of both a broken family and the United States. in their whole. It’s an ambitious undertaking for an 87-minute film, and while that lofty goal may result in a few stretches that are a bit broad, one comes away admiring D’Ambrose’s meticulously committed approach to storytelling.

“Jesse Damrosch was born in 1987.” Thus begins the story of an anonymous and invisible narrator whose candor has the effect of an omnipresent observer, recalling the pragmatic chronicle of Hugh Ross in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or, perhaps more appropriately for a family saga like this, Alec Baldwin’s voiceover in The Royal Tenenbaums. We learn of the death of his uncle, Joseph, two years before and the real cause (of AIDS) and the one his father fabricated (liver disease from dirty silverware in a restaurant), setting up the contradictions and the complicated relationships that will progress throughout Jesse’s education. Rarely needing more than one setup per scene to convey his story, D’Ambrose moves through life’s minor and major moments, giving equal importance to Jesse’s perspective on how light comes through the window, the spinning of a ceiling fan and a rear view of a New York State roadmap as news of her grandmother (Melinda Tanner) has died. From birthdays to holidays to a crumbling marriage between his parents Lydia (Monica Barbaro) and Richard (Brian d’Arcy), from the birth of a half-brother to his high school graduation, D’Ambrose hits some notable coming-of-age beats but never in the way viewers might be used to.

Compared to another ambitious coming-of-age tale, Childhood, Cathedral saves as a contrast, swapping the verbosity and haunting nature of Linklater’s epic for a more formally precise study of subtraction. A cut on a lock of baby hair tells us all we need to know about Jesse’s arrival into the world. The same goes for seeing a spent birthday cake before attending any part of the actual party; D’Ambrose sometimes paints a journey close to the erratic pattern of memory. Archival footage of vintage advertisements (from Statue of Liberty centennial coins to the film Kodacolor Gold), 9/11 and its political aftermath, and Hurricane Katrina pop in and out of the narrative, becoming indelible mainstays to the outside world that a traditionally insular upbringing will never paint a full picture of.

While the cumulative effect of Cathedral is formidable, some elements seem a bit more scattered. Brian d’Arcy James lends complexity to a complicated father figure, trying to juggle money issues and the dissolution of a marriage while caring for his son, but the rest of this performance can feel wooden, even if it’s on purpose. In a clear nod to Bresson’s principles of suppressing the appearance of performance, some sequences with more robust dialogue are overly tone-deaf, even rote, both lacking the poetic nature of the film’s storytelling and mismatching. to its strong visual identity. The recurring, straight-to-camera school photo cues featuring Jesse at different ages also give vibes of a rather obvious trope.

Seeing D’Ambrose expand its scope is impressive nonetheless, retaining a visual elegance “in the style of the previous work while evolving into a more complete and engaging storytelling across the line. Through the life of the protagonist, Cathedral is perhaps more substantial in retrospect, where the defining memories of that experience are ultimately irrelevant to the moment and the film leaves marks that could only fade as time progresses and youth is a distant past.

Cathedral screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.