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We Have Been Them: Roger Ebert’s Reviews About Empathy

Over the last four years, we have done what we call the Roger Takeover on the anniversary of his passing, April 4th. This year, to the mark the occasion and celebrate the creation of the Day 4 Empathy, we went through the archives and picked out 13 reviews that we felt reflected our mentor’s view of film as an “empathy machine,” something that allows us windows into lives we wouldn’t otherwise know a thing about and forces us to not remain passive observers but become active participants in the emotions that unfold there.

In looking over so many reviews, what’s striking is how much this interpretation of our best cinema was in place for his entire career. He seemed to emphasize things like empathy and compassion later in his life—falling in love and having a family will do that to you sometimes—but it’s safe to say that these elements helped instill his love for cinema and worked their way into his reviews much earlier. Look at our oldest review republished today, for 1972’s “Sounder.” Ebert writes, “It is one of the most compassionate and truthful of movies, and there's not a level where it doesn't succeed completely. It's one of those rare films that can communicate fully to a child of nine or ten, and yet contains depths and subtleties to engross any adult. The story is so simple because it involves, not so much what people do, but how they change and grow.” He later writes of “psychological movement,” and it feels like even four decades before his final review, Roger was looking for films that spoke to emotional development as much and maybe more than physical change.

That emotional development relays something that feels like truth. When Roger wrote about “Paris, Texas” for his Great Movies essay on the classic Wim Wenders film, he said, “It is fascinated by the sadness of its own truth.” We’ve included Roger’s first review of the film today, but both are worth reading. He ends that GM review of the film thusly, again echoing a definition of empathy in how much we come to care for these characters: “We care so much for their family, framed lonely and unsure, within a great emptiness.”

Of course, films about medical conditions are more likely to provoke empathy—that of the “there but for the grace of God” brand—but Roger’s writing on 1990’s “Awakenings” is particularly emotional. From the beginning of the review, Roger is asking questions in a way that’s designed to engage with the film’s central character as a human being—“What goes on inside his mind? Is he thinking in there?” He’s using the film as a conduit to someone who cannot communicate and feeling empathy for him in the process. This has always been one of my favorite Roger reviews.

Roger’s writing about the great performances of Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger in 1994’s “Shadowlands” allows him to address literal empathy on screen as the tool of an actor. He writes of how love gives Hopkins’ intellectual character “courage” and uses the e-word in describing Winger’s performance, when he says, “She projects a quiet empathy in creating Joy Gresham, a woman who has fallen in love with Lewis through his writings.” Her character falls in love through the empathetic response of responding to a writer’s work. As so many people did with Roger himself.

Again, Roger uses emotionally-charged words in his Great Movies essay on a film he gave 3.5-stars the first time but came to adore along with its so many fans, Frank Darabont’s “The Shawshank Redemption.” I’m struck by how much Roger analyzes the film in emotional terms, dissecting how the film uses pace instead of melodrama when he says, “'The Shawshank Redemption' creates a warm hold on our feelings because it makes us a member of a family. Many movies offer us vicarious experiences and quick, superficial emotions. 'Shawshank' slows down and looks. It uses the narrator's calm, observant voice to include us in the story of men who have formed a community behind bars. It is deeper than most films; about continuity in a lifetime, based on friendship and hope.”

We’re including another Great Movies essay for Roger’s take on John Hughes’ beloved “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” Again, Roger isn’t analyzing the film in traditional, detached terms, but looking at how it works as an empathy machine and plays on emotional undercurrents. He talks about how it “is able to reveal so much heart and truth.” And he reveals that “This is the only movie our family watches as a custom, most every Thanksgiving.” It’s such a great piece of writing that it’s liable to make you do the same.

One of my favorite films of all time, Wong Kar-Wai’s “In the Mood for Love,” may not first seem to be the ideal subject for empathy, and yet it is transportative not just culturally but emotionally. We come to know these characters and the world in which they struggle to contain their passion for one another. It is a film in which the silences and the emptiness often says more than the dialogue ever could, and Roger was keenly in tune with that, pointing out Wong’s empathy directly when he writes, “Instead of asking us to identify with this couple, as an American film would, Wong asks us to empathize with them; that is a higher and more complex assignment, with greater rewards.”

Roger tackled “one of the saints of the cinema” in Robert Bresson when he wrote about 1966’s “Au Hasard Balthazar” for the Great Movies section. As with several of the films we are highlighting today, Ebert notes how often silence and lack of melodrama can lead to more empathy because they allow us to feel instead of telling us how to feel. He writes, “By simplifying performance to the action and the word without permitting inflection or style, Bresson achieves a kind of purity that makes his movies remarkably emotional. The actors portray lives without informing us how to feel about them; forced to decide for ourselves how to feel, forced to empathize, we often have stronger feelings than if the actors were feeling them for us.”

Pixar has redefined empathy in animated films, and it’s interesting that Roger compares their work to that of another master of emotional filmmaking, Hayao Miyazaki in his review of 2009’s masterful “Up.” He writes gracefully about how different “Up” is from other animated films, saying, “"Up" is a wonderful film, with characters who are as believable as any characters can be who spend much of their time floating above the rain forests of Venezuela. They have tempers, problems and obsessions. They are cute and goofy, but they aren't cute in the treacly way of little cartoon animals.” It’s amazing to consider how much empathy we can muster for animated creations, but Pixar makes films like no one else, and Roger was often in tune with that when he wrote about their work. This is one of his best animated film reviews.

By the time he wrote a Great Movies essay on Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” the concept of empathy in cinema had reached another level for Roger. In this fantastic piece, he’s really talking about not just the empathy we feel for the characters on the screen but for the empathy between a creator and her creations. Coppola respects her characters too much to put them through manipulative nonsense and Roger picks up on that when he writes, “One of the strengths of Coppola's screenplay is that her people and everything they do are believable. Unlike the characters in most movies, they don't quickly sense they belong together, and they don't immediately want to be together. Coppola keeps them apart for a noticeably long time. They don't know they're the Girl and the Boy. They don't have a Meet Cute. We grow to know them separately.”

Much has been written about Mike Leigh’s ability with character and human instinct. His films are perfect models of the empathy machine in the manner in which they transport us into the three-dimensional, fully-realized worlds of their characters. Roger even uses the word in the last review he would write for a film by one of his favorite filmmakers (Roger gave a Mike Leigh film 4 stars an unbelievable 10 times, and never gave a single one a thumbs down): “Not quite every year brings a new Mike Leigh film, but the years that do are blessed with his sympathy, penetrating observation, and instinct for human comedy. By that I don't mean 'comedy' as in easy laughter. I mean that comedy that wells up from movies and allows us to recognize ourselves in characters both lovable and wretched. Leigh's 'Another Year' is like a long, purifying soak in empathy.”

Empathy does not always mean agreement. It’s easier to feel empathy for a character with whom we can emotionally and situationally identify, but it takes a great filmmaker to produce audience empathy for a character doing something with which we disagree. Of course, Asghar Farhadi is one of our best filmmakers, and Roger writes about his remarkable ability in the intro to his 2012 review of “A Separation”: “"A Separation' is a film in which every important character tries to live a good life within the boundaries of the same religion. That this leads them into disharmony and brings them up before a judge is because no list of rules can account for human feelings. The film involves its audience in an unusually direct way, because although we can see the logic of everyone's position, our emotions often disagree.”

Roger's last-published review was for James Ponsoldt’s 2013 film “The Spectacular Now.” It’s one of his most beloved, honest pieces of work about a movie with which he clearly connected. It is amazing to consider the final words published by the best film critic of all time in the context of today’s #Day4Empathy and his view of cinema. They are so simple. Eight little words. But they tell us everything we need to know about how Roger valued the human experience of filmgoing: “We have known them. We have been them.”

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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