The Life of Emile Zola (review)

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The Truth Is Out There

The Life of Emile Zola is a curiously uninvolving biopic — curious because the second half of the film operates at a distance from its professed subject, exchanging his for another man’s story.

In Paris in 1862, Emile Zola (Paul Muni) writes muckraking articles about the poverty of the French people and the corruption of their leaders, barely scratching out a living until he writes Nana, a book about the life of a prostitute. It’s a smash hit, a book that respectable gentlemen and ladies read on the sly, and it turns Zola into a celebrity and champion of the people. He churns out book after book exposing all who deserve to be exposed in the government and military — books that make him quite rich. But an old friend, the artist Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff), has a warning for Zola: “An artist should remain poor.”

When a Jewish military officer is wrongfully accused of espionage — just the kind of story that used to capture Zola’s attention — Zola can hardly be interested, as Cezanne had foreseen might happen. And here The Life of Emile Zola zooms away from its subject, focusing in on the story of Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut), which is fortunately riveting. Sent to the remote Devil’s Island Prison in 1896, Dreyfus is left to languish while newer evidence turns up the real traitor, who is acquitted in a sham court martial in the army’s effort to protect itself from the embarrassment of having to admit it was wrong. Mme. Dreyfus (Gale Sondergaard), convinced of her husband’s innocence, visits Zola to plead for his help. “All your life,” she tells him, “you’ve stood for truth and justice” — this finally prompts him to look into the story, bringing the movie, albeit a little late, back into his life.

Despite the film’s good performances all around, the shifting focus of The Life of Emile Zola tends to make it a frustrating experience for modern viewers.

Oscars Outstanding Production 1937
unforgettable movie moment:
Dreyfus’s public denigration and humiliation, at which his braids and honors are ripped forcibly from his uniform.

previous Best Picture:
1936: The Great Ziegfeld
next Best Picture:
1938: You Can’t Take It with You

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures

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