In his review of Jafar Panahi's "This is Not a Film," Roger Ebert calls it "an extraordinary act of courage." He says that it includes "a final scene of overwhelming power" and adds that he would like to show Panahi's (not a) film "to those in the United States who are in favor of a close union of church and state." He does not say what weaknesses, if any, he found in it. Nevertheless, he gives "This is Not a Film" three and a half stars out of a possible four. It's very good, in other words, but it's not great.
On Twitter, Movies.com writer David Ehrlich responded to Ebert's star rating with confusion and frustration. "He knows stars are arbitrary," Ehrlich tweeted, adding that this film "needs an audience & vice-versa." A four star review from a critic of Ebert's stature and influence, Ehrlich noted, can greatly improve a small movie's prospects; a three and a half star review somewhat less so. If the movie is as good as Ebert says and if it has the potential to make a meaningful contribution to culture and maybe even human rights around the world (the Iranian Panahi is in the midst of a long, ongoing battle with the government of Iran over his right to free expression), should he have granted it the extra half star?
Ehrlich's tweets prompted a long, thoughtful response from Corey Atad at his Just Atad blog. In attempting to delineate the difference between a three and a half star and a four star movie, he cites Ebert's explanation in an old Movie Answer Man column: "Three and a half," he wrote, "is a very good rating, meaning all a movie lacked was an ineffable tingle at the base of my spine." "So it sounds," Atad says, "like though he thought very highly of 'This Is Not a Film,' it didn’t quite give him that 'ineffable tingle' that, say, 'A Separation' did earlier this year."
I don't know any critic that enjoys giving out star ratings. If it's not the worst part of the job, it's certainly the most difficult (okay the second most difficult, just behind sitting through Katherine Heigl movies). I write regularly for two different outlets — ScreenCrush and Time Out Chicago — that use totally different ratings systems. ScreenCrush has a 1-10 number system; 10 is "Citizen Kane," 1 is "What Was Katherine Heigl's Last Movie Called?" No half points allowed. Time Out Chicago has a five star rating system, no half stars allowed. That can often make things complicated, or at least incredibly vague. In a five star system with no half stars, you might award three stars to anything from "flawed but admirably ambitious" to "solid but not exceptional." Sometimes a movie might seem better than three stars but not worthy of four, and you have to figure out whether to round up or down (something I struggled with recently when I reviewed the Norwegian teen comedy "Turn Me On, Dammit!" for Time Out New York).
Ebert uses half stars, but his maximum rating is four, not five. So then there becomes a whole conversion factor. If "This is Not a Film" is three and a half out of four stars, what's that out of five stars? Or ten? Who knows.
This is all a very long-winded way of saying that stars have their place, but they don't have much meaning. If you really want to know what a critic's thinking, don't just glance at the stars; read the review. In his piece, Atad weighs a critic's various responsibilities when doling out stars: to the film, to the public, to himself, and ultimately decides that the responsibility really belongs to the reader:
"It’s all a personal decision. Ebert decided to prioritize his personal experience over the potential importance of the film. Other critics might decide otherwise. There are no rules, and I really think it’s up to the critic’s taste."
I agree. The only thing I try to do with star ratings — the only thing a critic can do with them — is apply them consistently. The critic must treat his stars the way a baseball umpire treats his strike zone: it should be the same, letters to knees, for every player (or movie). Albert Pujols shouldn't get more favorable calls just because he's such an incredible hitter and Jafar Panahi doesn't automatically deserve an extra half star simply because he's an incredible director. Like star ratings, balls and strikes can appear pretty black and white from an outside perspective, but one must always consider the human element involved. The umpire calls it as he sees it, just like the critic. You may not agree, but that's part of the fun: the room for different interpretations and the opportunity for conversations about different viewpoints.
For Ebert, the difference between three and a half and four stars is a spine tingle. In this case, he didn't feel one. Ebert does indeed have a powerful and influential platform at his disposal, but if he started handing out higher or lower ratings because of who made what movie, he wouldn't keep it for very long. And besides, as he puts it, three and a half stars is a "very good rating." I imagine "An Extraordinary Act of Courage!" would look just as good as a poster as a couple of stars.
Read more of Roger Ebert's review of "This is Not a Film."