BY LAURA EMERICK
CHAMPAIGN-URBANA -- Though the calendar indicates spring, it was actually snowing here Thursday, on the third day of the 15th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival, which runs through Sunday at the historic Virginia Theatre. The inclement weather, however, accented the themes of the day's first two films, both of which considered the end of life and the passage into the next world.
First up, "Oslo, August 31" (2011), directed by Joachim Trier, depicts the last day of a former addict, adrift in anguish and despair. "Coming from Norway and discovering that it was snowing here, I felt very much at home," said Trier during a post-screening Q&A. Later, as the talk turned to the communal aspect of moviegoing, he added: "There's something wonderful about cinema in that we can share a sense of loneliness in a room full of others."
It was followed by Keisuke Kinoshita's "The Ballad of Narayama" (1958), a morality play done in kabuki style, about the Japanese folk tradition of ubasute, in which the elderly, after reaching 70 years of age, are carried by their children to a mountaintop and left to die as a sacrifice to the gods. In the film, Orin, a 70-year-old widow, matter-of-factly accepts her impending fate and announces at one point: "It will be snowing on the day that I ascend to the mountaintop."
"The Ballad of Narayama" happened to be the final entry in Roger Ebert's Great Movies series, and three weeks before his death -- at age 70 -- Ebert asked festival director Nate Kohn to add the film to the festival's lineup.
The acceptance of death as inevitable, as portrayed in "Narayama," is a topic that Ebert addressed many times in his own writing. But did he decide to add the film because he thought his own death was near?
"All I can tell you is that I had the same thought," said film historian David Bordwell (and a longtime Ebertfest participant) during the Q&A afterward. "Probably [Roger] wants us to think about it, too."
Somewhere in the Great Beyond, Roger must have smiled because it was snowing on the day that "Narayama" ascended to the mountaintop at Ebertfest.
ABOVE: Tilda Swinton in "Julia"
The mood turned lighter during the discussion of the thriller "Julia" (2008), with the film's star, the Oscar winner Tilda Swinton. "When I think of Roger, the first word that comes to mind is enthusiast," she said. "I'm so proud that Roger was a fan of this film and that it was so dear to his heart."
As Ebert wrote in his review of "Julia": "We have not seen this Tilda before -- but then we haven't seen most of the Tildas before" -- referring to her propensity for portraying a rogue's gallery of characters.
"Julia" takes a nightmare journey through a series of cons, all conceived by "an alcoholic slut" bent on finally getting her piece of the action. During the talk afterward, festival producer and host Chaz Ebert told Swinton: "Film of course is a visual medium but I could smell the sweat pouring out of this character."
Swinton confessed that she always wanted to make "an alcoholic film ... that's so out of control that it puts you in a state of vertigo. This role felt really kamikaze. It was a really different kind of energy for me."
Though "Julia" is long at 140 minutes, Swinton said, "there's a four-hour cut out there somewhere. This is just the trailer."
The festival continues Saturday with the Spanish silent film "Blancanieves" and three other titles. Post-screening talks are being streamed on ebertfest.com.