Friday, September 24, 2010

The Life of Emile Zola

William Dieterle (director) 1937, 116m, Paul Muni (1895-1967) as Zola, Oscar for Best Film

This is a biographical film about Emile Zola (1840-1902), the prolific and popular French novelist, a French Dickens whose novels mirror the times in which he lived. Emile Zola is equally famous for taking up the cause of justice at the peak of his career, in the process staking wealth and reputation, even putting his life at stake.

This was in the context of the Dreyfus Affair, in which a French army officer was falsely accused of passing on military secrets to a foreign power. He was publicly disgraced, stripped of military rank and status and deported to Devil's Island, off the coast of South America, where he withered away for four years. It soon became clear to the military that Dreyfus had been wrongly convicted, but the entire military establishment right up to the war minister engaged in a massive disgraceful face saving cover up, involving forgeries, lies, absolving the actual culprit and transferring to a remote African location, an officer who dared raise his voice for the truth, offering concrete proof of the miscarriage of justice.

It was under these circumstances that Zola was persuaded by Dreyfus' wife to use his literary renown and power of words, which was bound to resound throughout the land. At first he was reluctant but when confronted with the monstrosity of the scandal he threw himself completely into the cause. His first and most well known salvo was the eloquent newspaper article in the form of a letter addressed to the  French President under the heading J'accuse--I accuse. This is sometimes called the most famous newspaper article ever. In words of burning eloquence and emotion Zola outlined the shameful behavior of the high and mighty, naming each one of them, and appealing to the conscience of the people. The result was that Zola himself was put on trial for libel, and another mockery of the legal process ensued.

It is this trial which forms the center piece of the film. The trial has been compared to a circus on which the attention not only of the entire French populace but the whole world was transfixed. Crowds milled around the courtroom and Zola from a celebrity became the most hated man, with piles of his books burnt in bonfires. The film captures magnificently the grand spectacular trial, in which the amphitheater like bowl of a courtroom brims and explodes with the teeming passions of an inflamed populace, and the disgraceful parade of injustice and judicial malpractice, with political power pulling the strings from behind proceeds in broad daylight.

To cut a story short, Dreyfus was found guilty by the jury and condemned to the maximum punishment of one year's imprisonment. He decided it prudent to escape to England where he carried on the battle of words in the British press, attracting worldwide attention. Things finally took a favorable turn and the French government left with no choice but to bow to international opinion and save it's honor by acquitting Dreyfus and pardoning Zola. The affair places a searchlight on the evil macchiavellism which is the governing philosophy in halls of power.

I had never heard of Paul Muni. His portrayal of Zola is impassioned, fluid and skillful. He is a thespian in the old mold and this is a great movie from the days when movies were movies and actors acted.  I  was vaguely affair of the Dreyfus case and Zola's role and always curious about it at the back of my mind. This movie does a thorough and immersive job. It is an inspiring and uplifting film which deserves to be better known.

I have to thank my blog pal Nathan Hood for telling me about this wonderful film.

Nathan Hood (Review)


Nathanael Hood said...

Thanks, bro.

But it's Nate Hood, with an H.

But I'm glad that you liked it. More people need to know about Paul Muni. He truly was a great actor. This was easily one of his best roles. I think that one of the reasons why he was so incredible was that he got his start doing live theater on Broadway. A lot of old school Hollywood stars got their start doing live theater. Nowadays, new film stars have almost no acting experience with which to work with.

If you really liked his performance, then you should also check out "The Story of Louis Pasteur."

S. M. Rana said...

@Nate Hood

Muni was really good and I'm looking out for his Good Earth.

Seongyong Cho said...

Paul Muni's one of the most famous roles is the anti-hero of "Scarface"(1932). I heard about Dreyfus Affair several time since I was young, so I did not miss the chance to watch the movie. A standard biopic, but the best of its kind.

I want to recommend William Deterle's other film "The Devil and Daniel Webster".

S. M. Rana said...

@ Seongyong
You sure have seen a pile of movies. Thanks for the two recommendations which I am sure to be facing sooner more than later, since I respect your judgement about films.