Monday, March 12, 2007


Paul Muni plays the title role in The Life of Emile Zola, the biographical film of the 19th century French writer, social activist, and general dust-kicker.

Unevenly paced and choppily edited, the first act efficiently checks through the list of necessary milestones of Zola's early career. The second act abandons Zola altogether and focuses on a simplified and incomplete version of The Dreyfus Affair.

It's in its third act that the film justifies its Best Picture Oscar. The movie becomes a first rate courtroom drama with surprise witnesses, withheld evidence, testy lawyers objecting, and irritable judges overruling. Zola's on trial for libel after publishing J'accuse, the controversial essay critical of the French government. In the climatic speech by Zola to the jury, Muni pours his considerable reserves of passion into his fist pumping and jowl shaking monologue.


The story of anti-Semitism in France in the late 19th century, and its probable role in sending an innocent patriot into exile, was timely considering the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, particularly Germany. Or at least it would have been had the film mentioned it.

Bafflingly, the most relevant and compelling part of the Dreyfus affair was completely left out of the movie! It wasn't until after I saw the movie and researched its accuracy that I learned that Zola and Dreyfus were Jewish, and that this was a significant part of the case.


Although I criticize this movie for simplifying the facts of the Dreyfus case, it's this generalization that makes this movie eerily relevant today. In the movie's version of the case, the army falsely convicts Dreyfus, and after they discover their error, they cover it up to save face. Zola's meddling threatens to divide the country just when they need unity the most, so he is branded a traitor. In this sense, Zola is like modern muckraker Michael Moore in that his attempt to hold the government accountable for its actions is considered a treasonous act by some, and a patriotic act by others.