Life Itself (2014)
Director: Steve James
Plot: A documentary film that recounts the inspiring and entertaining life of world-renowned film critic and social commentator Roger Ebert.
Genre: Documentary / Biography
Rating: M18 for brief sexual images/nudity and language.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
Life Itself holds special meaning for me, not because Roger Ebert wrote reviews, but that he shared his enthusiasm towards life and the movies with the readers he treasured. Directed by one of the most skilled documentarians of our time, the film puts Steve James back onto the map with a different kind of work.
This is not a documentary with a cause to champion; neither is it in any way politically motivated. Instead, it serves up a huge dose of inspiration as we go up close and personal with Ebert in his last years before he succumbed to his long-running illness in April 2013.
Life Itself gives us a wider biographical picture of Ebert's life, from writing his first review for the Chicago Sun-Times in the late 1960s to his infamous duels with Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel on their television show, and finally to his beautiful marriage to Chaz.
Along the way, we hear from his friends, filmmakers like Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese and Ramin Bahrani on Ebert's impact on their film careers, and even fellow critics who have come to idolize (or despise) him.
However, the power of James' film comes not from its quite comprehensive biographical look at a cultural icon, but how Ebert in his last years remained to be a harbinger of optimism and inspiration and one who was infinitesimally hopeful about life.
To see him lying in bed, with his lower jaw surgically removed, and typing away his reviews and articles in obvious physical pain is to see a man who despite having lost the capacity to speak and eat, found new joy (and voice) through his blog.
Ebert described his experience as the final act of his life, but while he lived and breathed cinema for more than fifty years, this was a new journey of discovery he relished without fear. So infectiously passionate about the movies, Ebert in Life Itself showed us that while life and passion could mix, there was something else that could be loved far more than one’s passion, and that it is life itself, in all of its simplicity and complexity.
This documentary is an exceptional work with a balance of insight, history and love for the subject. Ebert has inspired my writings for almost eight years, and while he may be missed dearly, I would like to think of him as a saint who lives eternally in the words of the thousands of film critics and reviewers, self-professed or otherwise, who continue to write about the movies today.
Verdict: Roger Ebert serves up a huge dose of inspiration in this exceptional documentary made during his last years.
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