“I think I am so fortunate to have had one of the greatest love stories,” Chaz Ebert emotionally told the crowd tonight at the Sundance Film Festival world premiere screening of the biographical documentary about her late husband Roger Ebert, who died April 4. “He would say two thumbs up, way up,” a visibly moved Chaz said when asked what Ebert would think about the Steve James-directed Life Itself. Speaking about her late husband’s love of film, Chaz Ebert told the audience that he believed that a pic did its job if “you left the movie as a truer version” of yourself. That prompted another round of applause in an evening of many. She said watching the film was “very emotional” for her. Presented by CNN Film and with Martin Scorsese among its executive producers, the intimate, nuanced, touching and often funny film combines footage of Ebert in his final months, excepts from his best-selling memoir, interviews with the likes of The Wolf of Wall Street director and archival footage.
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“This was the easiest film to program ever,” said festival director John Cooper before the screening started. Part of that ease is that Life Itself is a film about Ebert and in many ways about Sundance but also because of what it reveals. “Show the man, not the icon,” Chaz said Ebert instructed James of making the documentary. The man, the icon and one of Sundance’s greatest supporters was honored Sunday when a packed MARC Theatre erupted in a standing ovation when the 112-minute film ended and Chaz Ebert and James came out. Ebert’s old friend Bill Mack and Marlene Siskel, the widow of Ebert’s longtime At The Movies co-critic, also were there for the short Q&A, along with members of the Ebert family.
As she talked about her last years together with her husband, Chaz Ebert voice cracked with emotion. “People say I’m a saint,” she said, “but they don’t know how much my heart grew in those years and how I took care of him and he took care of me.” After she told a story of Ebert handling one of her health crises as he was going through his own, the crowd burst out in laughter when James said, “Why didn’t you tell me that in the film?” When a tearful Chaz thanked James for the film he made, more than a few eyes in the theater became wet as well. James had choked up earlier when introducing the film and the support Ebert gave his film Hoop Dreams when it premiered at Sundance 20 years earlier.
Sundance and many other festivals have shown their respect for the critic in various ways since his death. Last June, the Sundance Institute honored Ebert with the Vanguard Leadership Award, which Chaz Ebert accepted on his behalf. In September , the Toronto Film Festival opened with a tribute to Ebert, while Telluride dedicated its entire festival to the sharp and passionate writer. As my colleague Pete Hammond reflected in his appreciation when the critic died, “Ebert loved movies, even when he hated them.” He also loved good writing about film. As well as the debut of Life Itself, this year’s Sundance also sees the festival’s first Fellowship for Film Criticism, inspired by Ebert.
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