In my quest to watch all the movies that have received the Academy Award for Best Picture, I watched The Life of Emile Zola, which won in 1937 against The Awful Truth, Captains Courageous, Dead End, The Good Earth, In Old Chicago, Lost Horizon, One Hundred Men and a Girl, Stage Door and A Star is Born.
The movie, directed by William Dieterle, stars Paul Muni as the influential French writer and political thinker Emile Zola. While it espouses grand ideas and makes use of eloquent dialogue, the movie is an unfocused bore.
Paul Muni was a very well-known actor in his time but is less well-known today, much as Zola is largely forgotten by modern readers. Both Muni and Zola, in many ways, were products of their time. Muni gained great respect by playing lofty roles at a time when gravitas equated to great acting. Zola was a political writer whose works were rooted in the French political landscape of the late 1800s.
The movie traces Zola's life from his youth as a poor writer to his death at age 71 from carbon monoxide poisoning. The film could have been more interesting if it had been more selective and better structured.
At the beginning of the film, Zola is living a bohemian lifestyle in Paris with his friend, painter Paul Cezanne. Viewers who don't immediately guess the identity of friend "Paul" must wait until nearly halfway through the film to learn his last name. Cezanne appears in only a few scenes, designed to establish how poor the two were until Zola's first success, a book called Nana, the fictionalized memoirs of a Paris prostitute whom the two befriended in a cafe.
As the film marches on, Zola courts controversy, expressing his opinions about society and politics, with the requisite montage of book covers indicating the passage of time. After a number of small vignettes, such as him arguing with book publishers over printing controversial books, the film changes gears dramatically.
About halfway through, viewers are introduced to Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who is wrongly accused and convicted of espionage, sentenced to life imprisonment at Devil's Island. At first, there's no indication of how his story is related to Zola, for those not familiar with Zola's biography. But then Dreyfus' wife approaches Zola and asks for his assistance in clearing her husband, since by this time, Zola is wealthy and influential.At first, Zola declines, saying he wishes to retire in peace, but as he reviews the facts of the case, he becomes convinced of Dreyfus' innocence. He writes an open letter to the French president, publishing it on the front page of an associate's newspaper, accusing the French government and military of covering up the truth.
The movie becomes a bit more interesting, as Zola is sued for libel and the bland biography converts to courtroom drama. The blatant favoritism of the judge ties the hands of the defense, hampering their efforts to prove the accusations are true and therefore, the letter is not libelous. Zola gives an impassioned speech which begins with the facts of case and broadens into a plea to the jury's humanity, patriotism and sense of justice. That speech was likely instrumental in securing the Oscar for the film, and the courtroom scenes are the only portion remotely worth viewing.
After Zola is convicted, he escapes imprisonment by fleeing to England for a short while. The film does not explain why he was allowed to return within less than a year, but historically, he was permitted to return shortly before a drastic change in government, after which Dreyfus was offered a pardon.
The film begins with a preamble saying that the biography is fictionalized, which might have been their way of escaping criticism for factual errors and omissions. One of the largest is the omission of the charge of anti-Semitism which Zola made against the French government, since Dreyfus was Jewish. Such anti-Semitic views were evidenced in the contemporary discussion about the Dreyfus Affair. A hundred years later, in fact, France's Roman Catholic Paper, La Croix, apologized for anti-Semitic editorials during the Dreyfus Affair.
In the movie version, Dreyfus is never identified as Jewish, and anti-Semitic language never appears, either from the military, the government or the citizen on the street.
Another change the filmmakers chose to make was to have Zola die on the same day that Dreyfus was reinstated into the military. Clearly, though, this change was made for dramatic effect.
Muni's performance is the sort of "great man" performance you might expect from a movie of that time: portraying an historical figure as beyond reproach, delivering lofty speeches, adored by his family and never faltering in his convictions. Whether or not this is true of Emile Zola, the modern viewer finds such portrayals simplistic, even naive.
The movie suffers from a lack of focus. Rather than portraying his entire life, the movie should have focused on the Dreyfus Affair, perhaps providing more insight into Zola's reasons for supporting the wronged man, or providing more historical context.
Overall, the film was disappointing. Academy voters, however, love biopics about great historical figures, especially those credited with steering society in a new direction. So in a sense, perhaps votes for The Life of Emile Zola were really votes for the principles for which Zola fought.
Rating (out of 5): **
Even important figures are sometimes boring.