Life Itself (Steve James, 2014): USA

Reviewed by Lia Durham. Viewed at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2015.

Life Itself is a documentary about the life and career of the world’s most famous movie critic Roger Ebert. Directed by Steve James this film chronicles the last five months of Ebert’s life and also is based off his best selling memoir of the same name. The documentary is filmed in the style of both direct cinema and cinema verite. Steve James is handling the camera himself giving it a personal feel and talks to Ebert from behind the camera as well.

Ebert wrote as a film critic for the Chicago Sun Times for over 40 years, he also co-hosted a popular nationally televised movie review show along side Gene Siskel where they coined the thumbs up thumbs down system. The film goes through his life like a scrapbook with old photos and archival footage. It also jumps around in his memoir non-linearly with text from the book super imposed over footage.

The present day scenes are intimate and raw. Battling thyroid cancer for years the disease eventually took his ability to speak. When we see him in the film he is in the hospital and uses a notepad or a computerized voice system to communicate. There is one scene in particular where we see a tube being removed from his throat. Normally a private matter Ebert allows James to film it, it is intense. He wanted to be truthful about his condition and have people know what he was going through.

I found the film totally engrossing. He was loved and respected by so many filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese. And meeting his wife after we screened the film was one of the highlights of the whole festival for me. Her strength and courage is truly amazing and I appreciate the open honesty of the film itself.

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