Sunday, August 22, 2010

1937: The Life of Emile Zola

This film's title is very misleading.  True, it covers Emile Zola's life from his struggling youth to his death, but that's not its main focus.  The majority of the film is dedicated to Zola's fight for the freedom of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who has been wrongly convicted of treason.  But it shouldn't have been done any other way.

I thought this was going to be more like The Great Ziegfeld, with time passing at a steady pace through a famous man's life.  Instead, Zola went from starving youth to successful, renowned author relatively quickly, and I thought, is it over already?  But no, it was just setting up his backstory.  The young Zola was obsessed with presenting the truth at all costs, but the older Zola thought his work was done and he could retire in peace.  Then he hears of the cover-up involved in the Dreyfus case, and his old yearning to present the truth returns.  Even when all of France is crying out against him, Zola never stops fighting for truth and justice.  That may sound cheesy and cliche, but the way this movie presents it, it's not.  Part of it is Paul Muni's performance as Zola, particularly in the courtroom scene, but the film wouldn't have worked without Joseph Schildkraut's fantastic performance as the incredibly likable, unfortunate Dreyfus.  Zola could have been as devoted to the truth as possible, but if the audience didn't care so implicitly for Dreyfus and his wife (played magnificently by Gale Sondergaard), the film would not have been nearly as effective.  Thankfully, the Academy reconized this and called Schildkraut the Best Actor in a Supporting Role that year.

Before watching this, I knew absolutely nothing about the real Emile Zola, so I have no idea how accurate this film is.  There is a disclaimer at the beginning saying that some of the characters' names have been changed, and some of the characters and events are fictitious, but I'm not sure which ones they are.  I find it ironic that a film about a man dedicated to the truth doesn't seem to care if it portrays the truth or not.  Nevertheless, this remains a powerful film.  The pacing is a little odd, but it works.  The writing is at times a bit melodramatic, but again, it works.  Parts of it are very depressing, like many other films on this list, but at least it provides hope, unlike Cavalcade.

Next up: You Can't Take It With You

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