Cast: Roger Ebert, Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani, Errol Morris, Ava DuVernay, Chaz Ebert.
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Going into LIFE ITSELF, I was expecting a poignant celebration of the most adored film critic in history. I wasn’t expecting to be taken on a deeply personal journey that would have me in floods if tears throughout.
The film begins five months before Roger Ebert’s death as he undergoes treatment for various ailments associated with his battle with cancer. Here we find one of the great cultural wits of our time in high spirits despite being physically weak and rendered unable to talk. The narrative cuts between current footage of Ebert’s hopeful recovery with his wife Chaz to the story of his life. Indeed the title LIFE ITSELF is lifted from Ebert’s memoir of the same name and key passages are narrated over some wonderful photography and archive footage of his illustrious career. We are treated to interviews with friends and colleagues. While the most moving discussions are with his wife Chaz (who is the real hero of the piece), the most enjoyable has to be Martin Scorsese struggling to think of something nice to say about Ebert’s only screenwriting effort, Russ Meyer’s ‘BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS.’
There are many great laughs to be had, particularly in the striking footage of Ebert sparring with his great friend and rival Gene Siskel. Their on-screen feud was the stuff of television lore and the out-takes of them squabbling over the auto-cue show that this was no façade. There was a fierce mutual respect and yet they clearly got on each other’s tits and this makes for enduring and endearing watching.
Even more prevalent is the quality of Ebert’s writing. With extracts of his memoir discussing his thoughts on society as well as film, he was not only profoundly eloquent but his rugged prose had a poetic feel that that was demotic as well as beautiful. It is no wonder that film critics look up to him with such reverence. Not only that but he was clearly a man of the people, as film maker Ava Marie DuVernay makes clear in a touching story about how they crossed paths when she was a little girl. It was this meeting that inspired Ebert to write an article about her, their respective relationships with their aunts and how the world of movies bound them together.
It is through moments like this that director Steve James (HOOP DREAMS) shows how a wider world view can be mediated through film culture and an appreciation of this is one of Ebert’s lasting legacies.
There is no getting around it; this movie reminded me greatly of my dad. He passed away in 2014 from lung cancer and many of the experiences of that time are reflected in the sequences of Ebert’s treatment. Both men physically declined in a manner that was difficult to witness. Both men had to be to breath through a stoma (a surgically prepared hole in the throat) as well as having that hole cleaned of mucus to aid respiration. Ebert even thanked director James for including this footage, as the process had never been presented on screen. To see this visceral depiction of the horrific effects of cancer is rare and vital. It took me back to my father’s bedside and while this had me weeping uncontrollably, it is testament to the truth of James’ film making. This truth was important to Ebert and I’m thankful to him and his family for allowing the film to depict the matter so frankly.
It seems a front to the greatness of Roger Ebert’s writing that I should end a review of his film with such a cliched phrase, but LIFE ITSELF will make you laugh and make you cry. It will make you want to talk to your parents, it will make you want to talk about life itself and it will make you want to talk about film. And that get two thumbs up from me.
[usr=5] LIFE ITSELF is out today on DVD via Dogwoof, pick it up here.