Fictionalized account of the life of famed French author Emile Zola. As portrayed in the film, he was a penniless writer sharing an apartment in Paris with painter Paul Cezanne when he finally wrote a best-seller, Nana. He has always had difficulty holding onto a job as he is quite outspoken, being warned on several occasions by the public prosecutor that he risks charges if he does not temper his writings. The bulk of the film deals with his involvement in the case of Captain Alfred Dreyfus who was falsely convicted of giving secret military information to the Germans and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devils Island. Antisemitism played an important role in the real-life case but is hardly mentioned in the film. Even after the military found definitive evidence that Dreyfus was innocent, the army decided to cover it up rather than face the scandal of having arbitrarily convicted the wrong man. Zola's famous letter, J'Accuse (I Accuse), led to his own trial for libel where he was ...Written by
At the beginning of the film, Zola is warned to stop "muckraking." This term did not come into use until about 40 years after the period shown in the film. See more »
We've been watching your writings, young man. You're a troublemaker! These articles of yours, attacking our leading men of letters, the arts! Criticizing the civic authorities!
Perhaps you know of something better for me to criticize?
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Such occasions are not unlike great arias in operas: the stage lights softly dim and follow spot brightens as all cast characters (and audience) lean forward to focus on the delivery.
Such a moment occurs in "The Life of Emile Zola" as Paul Muni as Zola steps to the platform to deliver his courtroom defense speech. Against all the odds of a jeering mob and negative press, he proceeds to offer a seven minute oration.
The scene is a set-up for Muni, and the camera, editing, and staging are all designed for the actor to deliver his thespian goods. He doesn't disappoint.
Two other cinematic courtroom speeches are comparable: Alec Guiness as Benjamin Disraeli in "The Mudlark" (1950) enjoyed the rare opportunity of having his six minute, uninterrupted speech done in a single, slow tracking shot; and Gary Cooper as Howard Roark in "The Fountainhead" (1949) held a courtroom breathless for over five minutes, defending his act of poetic, if not Randian-judicial, justice.
In Muni's case, his defense scene turned out to be a highpoint of an intriguing acting career. From Yiddish theater to worldwide stardom--with fewer that two dozen films to his credit--Muni constantly enthralled some while leaving others doubtful.
What's undeniable about Muni is that he achieved stardom on his own power. He was able to convince a goodly number of people, both peers and public alike, that he was indeed not just a good but great actor.
While some held a sneaking suspicion that he was a wee bit of a poseur, having never formally studied his craft, it really doesn't matter. Muni didn't win his lucrative acting contracts--or his Academy Award honors--for nothing.
Personally, I enjoy his general work, being more partial to roles more close to his own than those of his elders. In latter cases I felt he often tended to go a bit over-the-top with "stereotypical mannerisms."
As Zola, though, his earnestness and determination proves convincing, and the film itself is peopled with a powerhouse cadre of Warner Bros. character players.
To the film's credit, a pre-enactment inscription admits to the intermingling of fiction with fact for dramatic purposes. This also relieves the production of accusations of historical inaccuracy.
All in all, "The Life of Emile Zola" is a most engrossing biopic of a courageous literary giant who placed the pursuit of justice above the receiving of worldly accolades.
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