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Life of Emile Zola [Import]
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Still as potently relevant today as it was in 1937, The Life of Emile Zola is a marvelously entertaining slab of Hollywood social issue-mongering. The life of the French writer is broadly sketched in the early going, but the film settles into its groove with the Dreyfus affair: the scandalous railroading of a military captain for treason, which shook France to its foundation in the 1890s. The elderly Zola's gradual involvement in the case, climaxing with his electrifying "J'accuse!" essay and subsequent trial for libel, is the heart and soul of the picture.
Warner Bros.' version of this story, directed by William Dieterle, carries over the passion (and hokum) of the previous year's Story of Louis Pasteur. It also retains that film's leading man, Paul Muni, who turns in an elaborately theatrical performance. The result was a box-office smash and three Oscars, for best picture, script, and supporting actor (Joseph Schildkraut, who plays Dreyfus). While the film occasionally creaks with Hollywood artifice, the clarion call of truth and outrage come through surprisingly strongly--indeed the film looks prescient as a warning about governments closing ranks to cover up mistakes. Mostly sidestepped is the anti-Semitic vitriol of the campaign against Dreyfus (his Jewishness is referenced only in a written report glimpsed for a moment). This is an old-fashioned barnburner that encourages the viewer to fan the flames. --Robert Horton
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TLEZ is your standard but exceptional Hollywood bio-movie then so popular. Typically, such films begin 'en medias res', thrusting the hero into a series of lesser adventures that prefigure his later, more heroic ones. Zola and Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff) are two poverty-stricken friends sharing a dumpy apartment in Paris. Each dreams of using his talent, Cezanne with art, Zola with words, to shake a complacent world with the immediacy of their need to force others to re-evaluate some given bedrock assumptions. Zola is a mudracker, but he cannot find it in himself to lead the fight alone. At critical points in the movie, others step in and out of his life to fire his conscience. Zola and Cezanne meet a streetwalker, Nana, who pours out a tale of economically blighted woe, the result of which is to fire Zola's imagination to write a novel exposing the corruption of a society that allowed such otherwise decent women to go astray. The first half of the movie sets up the character of Zola as one who, when convinced of the rightness of his cause, would boldly put in print inflammatory words that more than once would place him in peril. The second half focuses on the relation that Zola had with Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew who was a captain in the French army.Read more ›
Now I find the depiction of "great writer (Zola) and great painter (Cezanne) in Paris during the 1800s" to be a grade school or Sunday school version of life. Hollywood's description of the Dreyfus affair lacks complexity, sophistication, reality, accuracy. The true story abounds in dramatic interest, excitement, conflict and power quite beyond the movie's reach.
But we do have two marvelous speeches, one when Muni as Emile Zola is reading his pamphlet, "I Accuse," to his friends and allies. And the other, when he is defending himself on a charge of slander in a hostile court. These alone are worth more than the price of admission. Spend your time hearing them again and again and then get yourself a copy of Zola's pamphlet and a good book from Amazon.com on what the Dreyfus affair was all about.
Yes, this was made in about 1936; expect that and not something from the '80s, '50s or the present. An outstanding movie, somehow, as one who has read a number of Zola books, I think he would be pleased.