Reflecting on the professional career of renowned film critic Roger Ebert, filmmaker Werner Herzog remarks in the documentary Life Itself that he is “a soldier of cinema”. Ebert was man who not only championed cinema, but also managed to explain the importance of film in a way that the average person could understand. In Life Itself director Steve James reminds us that Ebert was so much more than simply a man who loved films.
A fitting companion piece to Ebert’s own autobiography of the same name, Life Itself is a moving film that touches on many of the key moments in Roger Ebert’s life. Since James began filming five months before Ebert’s passing, the film captures several candid moments with Ebert and his wife Chaz as they face increasing complications from Ebert’s numerous medical procedures. Although cancer took away his ability eat and speak, it did not destroy either of their spirits.
The duos inner strength and deep love for each other is truly inspiring. In many ways it is these elements that create the foundation of the film. It is hard to watch Life Itself and not contemplate aspects of our own lives. The themes that James touches on are universal. We immediately identify with the adversities that come with families dealing with the illness of loved ones. In both celebrating and reflecting on Ebert’s life, James subtly makes us confront our own mortality.
Though Roger Ebert was, and still is even in death, viewed as a hero to generations of film lovers, he was ultimately a man who had vices and struggles like everyone else. It is why so many of us identified with him. He had the awkward earnestness of the common man and the confidence and bravado you would expect from a Pulitzer Prize winner.
This delicate mixture shined through most when Ebert was butting heads with longtime co-host, newspaper rival and friend Gene Siskel. Using archival footage and interviews with those closest to the pair, James provides a good context to just how tenuous the relationship between the two men was. While they ultimately grew to love each other like brothers, even if they never verbalized it, there was a fierce competitive streak within the pair. This constant need to outdo the other captured our attention on television and inadvertently changed the face of film criticism.
For many of his fans, Roger Ebert was a celebrity on par with many of the directors and performers whose works he reviewed. It sends shivers down the spine to hear the likes of Martin Scorsese comment in the film that Ebert’s reviews helped to launch, and later save, his career. Some have proclaimed that film criticism officially died the day Ebert passed, but James’s film shows that Ebert’s spirit is still alive. Be it in the website he left behind or the millions of critical thinking film lovers his reviews nurtured, traces of Ebert can be found everywhere film is made and consumed.
One cannot help but wonder what Roger Ebert would have thought of Life Itself had he lived to see the finished product. While a well-constructed film, Life Itself does at times feel a tad too safe in its overall presentation. You can tell that in some sections James is carefully ensuring that he does not besmirch the image of Ebert that we have grown to love. After all this film is not an exposé, but rather a loving tribute. Though the film lacks the stylish flare of some the documentaries that have been released in recent years, James’ sensitive approach ensures that the film never overshadows its subject.
By the time you reach the end of Life Itself, chances are good you will hear the sounds of sniffles and notice tissues gently dabbed on eyes. Even the coldest of hearts will find themselves moved by this film. Life Itself is beautiful film that is so much more than a simple eulogy for Ebert’s life. It is an emotional journey that will have you thinking about family, friendship, love, the struggles that life throws at us and the power of cinema.
Life Itself opens tomorrow at the TIFF Bell Lightbox . Chaz Ebert will be on hand to introduce the film at the 7 pm screening.