by John Ellis
Chris and Emily White, the husband and wife team behind Cinema Purgatorio, are my friends. They’ve drank so much of my alcohol that they qualify as really good friends. In fact, Chris and I are just a couple of shots away from being bff’s. But, dear readers, don’t let my relationship with the filmmakers cause you to doubt my impartiality as a film critic. Besides, and as long as I’m being totally honest, I clicked “play” on Cinema Purgatorio with the hopes that I would hate the film. You see, I’m also an actor, and my filmmaker friends didn’t cast me in their movie. Because of my hurt feelings, I was rooting against the movie. So, I settled in with a big salty bucket of self-righteous indignation and a super-sized cup of gleeful critic’s contempt, and prepared to take copious notes in order to better craft my final evisceration. Well, surprise of all surprises, I enjoyed the film; so much so, in fact, that I forgive Chris and Emily for not casting me, even though they have yet to offer an apology.
Art is storytelling. Many artists forget that, but not Chris and Emily White. Cinema Purgatorio is a tale of two stories. The first is the story found within the film’s actual narrative of married filmmakers. The second is the story found in the tale of the two filmmakers, Chris and Emily, who also happen to be married, bringing that story to life as Cinema Purgatorio. Of course, the two stories intersect; but, even I, the almost bff of the director, can’t always tell for sure at which points. That speaks to the quality of the overall collaboration. But, first, a brief synopsis.
Neil and Liz Shaw, adroitly brought to life by Chris White and Traysie Amick, are struggling, independent filmmakers, trying to not only carve out a life as filmmakers, but also as a family. Financial stress, desire for exposure, and the promise of Bill Murray work together to overcome the Shaw’s objection to 48 Hour Film Festivals, and prompts them to enter the Low Country Boil 48-Hour Film Festival. Between taking pitches to assistant direct Gay-Christian-Horror films and dressing up as a purple dinosaur to entertain children at parties, the couple write the perfect script designed to drill deeply into Bill Murray’s well of Bill Murrayesqeness. Converging on the town of Charleston, SC, the couple, their film crew, and the cast plunge headfirst into the competition, and set about overcoming obstacles, some of their own making, but lose steam as it becomes apparent that Neil and Liz aren’t on the same page.
Now, since my entire purpose in writing this review is to entice readers to check the movie out for themselves, I will not give away any more of the movie. Besides, I’m assuming that the line “taking pitches to assistant direct Gay-Christian-Horror films” drove everyone to the bottom of the review where the link to stream Cinema Purgatorio can be found, and no one is actually reading at this point. But, on the off chance that a few of you have yet to begin watching the movie linked below, I should probably say some smart, criticky things about a well-crafted, hand-made movie that deserves a large audience.
One of the things that I love about the movies made by Emily and Chris is that they steer clear of the self-referential cynicism that seems to dominate the indie film circuit of today. Most good art is self-referential on some level, but stories, even stories that are rooted in personal experience, don’t have to live on the over-populated island of ironic winking. You won’t have to pretend that the emperor has clothes when you watch Cinema Purgatorio, the filmmakers aren’t trying to prove that they can speak over certain people’s heads. Smart, relatable stories that keep moving forward are one of the strengths of the Whites, and Cinema Purgatorio is, in a series of excellent efforts, their best effort to date. With no wasted beats, the pace of Cinema Purgatorio reflects the fictional Shaw’s urgency without rushing over things like character or plot development. Many independent filmmakers can’t get out of their own way with their words, but Chris, Emily, and scriptwriting collaborator Geoffrey Gunn understand that words are only a part of the storytelling process of filmmaking.
This next part of the review irritates me just a little bit. But, I begrudgingly acknowledge that my friends the Whites know what they’re doing when it comes to casting. The acting was good. And, if writing about the film’s acting hadn’t brought back the bitter taste of rejection, I would’ve written words like “honest” and “engaging” to describe the acting. Three of the obvious highlights in the cast are Alan Ray as “Alan,” Monica Eva Foster as “Jen,” and Lavin Cuddihee as “Nick.” Alan Ray serves double duty as cast member and as the movie’s cinematographer – and he excels in both roles. Of course, his character is the fictional Shaw’s cinematographer; and, if the real Alan is remotely like the movie Alan, I want to take a cross country trip with him where we only stay in youth hostels and hitchhike at least a third of the way. I’m going to begin lobbying Chris and Emily to create a spin-off series based solely around the character of Alan.
Monica Eva Foster embraces her role as the lush sound recordist/bff to Liz Shaw with gusto that never devolves into the sketch comedy characters found in many low-budget films. As Jen, Monica’s layer of love and concern for her friend Liz is never far from the surface, even in the hilarious prison scene. And when the audience is finally allowed to see Jen’s heart, it not only comes at the perfect time, but it also isn’t a surprise.
I don’t know where or how Emily and Chris found Lavin Cuddihee, but he was so convincing I actually looked his character’s name up on IMDB half expecting to find that he truly had been an 80’s action movie star. For the record, he wasn’t. Having seen the trailer for the movie, I wasn’t expecting the sweetness that seeped out of the myopic narcissism of Nick. Lavin played Nick with layers that will simultaneously creep you out and yet cause you to want to hug him at the same time.
I wish that I could write something specific about each member of the excellent cast, but Chris once chided me for my lengthy posts. So, Traysie Amick, Reid Cox, Harriet White, Jeff Driggers, Brandon Alexander Smith, and Nealy Glenn, know that I had quite a bit of praise to heap on each and every one of you, but your fearless leader’s words of criticism ring sharply in my ears, and are forcing me to wrap this review up.
Before wrapping up this review, however, I do want to touch on the heart of the movie – Chris/Neal and Emily/Liz. In one of the earlier scenes in the movie, Neal is being interviewed by a morning radio host – John Rock in the Morning. John Rock, played by John Oliver, introduces Neal as one of those “guys who makes those cute little films you see on the internet. You’ve got the cat that scratches somebody, or the funny dog, or the kid who got his finger bit.” This dismissal of Neal and Liz as artists is felt deeply and adds to the tension created within the context of a married couple attempting to thrive as artistic collaborators. Neal and Liz are characters in a movie. But, those characters were brought to life by my friends Chris and Emily. I’ve had the privilege of watching them work together as husband and wife collaborators and as artistic collaborators; and, those roles are often intertwined to the point of being the same. I’ve seen the work; I’ve seen the product(s). Cinema Purgatorio makes me root for them even more. In the movie, Neal and Liz keep moving forward, regardless of the obstacles – including outside dismissal and disrespect – committed to each other and their art. Like I wrote above, watching the movie, I wasn’t always sure where the lives of Neal and Liz ended and where the lives of Chris and Emily began. Besides speaking to the honesty found in the writing, it also speaks to the honesty and humility of two artists confessing their fears and struggles leading to a final denouement that is universally relevant – as all good stories are.
I have a vested interest in encouraging people to watch Cinema Purgatorio. But, that vested interest may not be what you’re thinking. I, too, am a storyteller, an artist; and, it does service to me, and the arts in general, to have people watching and engaging well-crafted art. Many of us look for locally brewed beer, locally roasted coffee, and locally crafted furniture. Why not extend that aesthetic impulse to entertainment options, too? In the twenty-first century, we have many entertainment options, and it can be hard to sort through the noise and find good stories that are also well-crafted and handmade. Well, Chris and Emily White have given you an option.
P.S. I would’ve been GREAT as the cop!
Note: this review was originally posted on my old blog.
 That’s a complete lie. My real motivation for writing this review is so that my dear friends will owe me one and HAVE to cast me in their next movie.
 Although I made the word up, I’m still worried that I misspelled it.
 I don’t know what a “sound recordist” is, but it’s what was listed in the highly impersonal press package that Chris sent me. When I texted him for some info and pictures, I was expecting something far more personal that reflected our close friendship than a dry, pre-packed press kit. I’m beginning to think that Chris and Emily wanted me to write a bad review. Well, jokes on them!