By Jerome Reuter
The name Roger Ebert has become synonymous with film criticism. Many of us who worship at the altar of celluloid, are still mourning his loss. For many years, we invited him into our living rooms, just to share his passion for film. Whenever he spoke about a film, we listened. Whether it was good, bad, forgettable, or groundbreaking—we hung on his every word.
Which brings me to the 2014 documentary, Life Itself. It’s a documentary about the life, passion, and final days of the cinemas most definitive critic. However, that description barely scratches the surface. It’s not just a film about a critic; it’s a tribute to someone who changed the way we see the art of the motion picture. Truth be told, it’s not an easy film to sit through. This would make the most toughened individual shed a tear, and pluck anyone’s heartstrings.
A great deal of the documentary is filmed at Ebert’s bedside, as he battles cancer. His resolve and determination alone would inspire anyone. I won’t lie; it’s hard to watch these scenes. Watching someone struggle in a hospital bed is difficult to watch, but when it’s someone who’s become a national treasure—it really hits home. Once again, it’s his passion for film that carries him through the ordeal. Terminally ill, with a large portion of his lower jaw missing, Ebert continued to write about the one thing that mattered most to him—film. Anyone watching this documentary could see the passion and drive carrying him through the darkest of times.
Much of this films narrative is told by stock footage, and interviews with the people who knew him best. We’re shown a portrait of someone who genuinely loved film, life, and every moment he existed—the good and the bad. Everyone, from his widow, contemporaries, colleagues, and filmmakers reminisce about one mans legacy. After seeing them on television so many times, we’re even given an in depth look into the relationship he had with fellow critic Gene Siskel.
The most captivating interviews featured are those with two filmmakers he was a champion of, Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog. Scorsese reminisces about being referred to as the ‘American Fellini’ (a statement I don’t dispute at all.) Werner Herzog gives the greatest compliment Ebert could possibly receive; he refers to him as a ‘soldier of the cinema.’ I couldn’t agree more with that statement.
Roger Ebert made the American public look at film in a whole new light. As hard as this was to watch, it’s a reminder of how powerful film is, and how far passion can take someone.