As Avatar and The Hurt Locker battle it out for the 82nd Best Picture award, yesterday I watched the winner of the 10th Best Picture award...
The Life of Emile Zola
Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg
(based on the book "Zola and His Time" by Matthew Josephson)
Paul Muni, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut, Gloria Holden, Donald Crisp
3 wins, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (Schildkraut)
Contrary to its title, The Life of Emile Zola is less a biography of the famed French writer as it is an exploration of the Dreyfus affair. While it does deal with Zola's life, especially his rise to fame, the central focus of the film is his involvement in the the political scandal that rocked France in the late 19th century.
Struggling as a writer in his early days, Emile Zola later finds success due to several politically charged books critical of the establishment. Meanwhile, French Jewish soldier Alfred Dreyfus is wrongly accused and subsequently convicted of treason. When evidence comes to light that would prove his innocence, ranking officials seek to sweep it under the rug. But our intrepid hero Mr. Zola steps in to speak up for Dreyfus only to find himself on trial for libel.
The picture begins at a cracking pace, covering Emile Zola's early life and career relatively quickly. Nonetheless, it never glosses over anything. Instead, we are clearly presented with the portrait of a man who loves his country and will passionately speak his mind on any perceived injustice. Clearly a strong believer in free speech, Zola is not fazed by authority, authoring several tomes that rock the proverbial boat.
When the story switches to the events leading up to Dreyfus' arrest and imprisonment, there is a slightly odd feeling of displacement, probably due to one's expectation of the story based on the film's title. All of a sudden, the Life of Emile Zola becomes the Corruption of the French Military. Not that I'm complaining. It's a gripping, well-told story of weighty themes. Zola takes the backseat for a while and he never quite manages to leave it for the rest of the film. Yes, he's the one who got people talking about Dreyfus again after the world had all but forgotten him, but once his famous "J'accuse!" article is written, his role from that point on is mostly a passive one, save for the powerful closing statement he delivers at his own trial (pictured). But, in the end, despite the film's intention of portraying Zola as a heroic man of action, he dies an entirely unheroic and horribly anti-climactic death. (Oops, spoiler alert...)
Paul Muni's French accent is only slightly better than his Chinese accent, but his performance in this film far outshines his work in The Good Earth. His portrayal lends Zola a certain moral heroism even if the story doesn't. Taking home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Joseph Schildkraut is heartbreaking as Alfred Dreyfus. A particularly poignant moment occurs when Dreyfus is finally released. He walks out of the prison cell once, stops, walks back in and repeats his exit twice more, clearly enjoying his freedom.
In spite of my criticism, The Life of Emile Zola is a very engaging film. Its only real flaw, then, is that it need not have bothered covering anything but the Dreyfus affair. And since that is the majority of the film anyway, perhaps a title change is all it would have taken.