Fictionalized account of the life of famed French author Emile Zola. As portrayed in the film, he was a penniless writer sharing an apartment in Paris with painter Paul Cezanne when he finally wrote a best-seller, Nana. He has always had difficulty holding onto a job as he is quite outspoken, being warned on several occasions by the public prosecutor that he risks charges if he does not temper his writings. The bulk of the film deals with his involvement in the case of Captain Alfred Dreyfus who was falsely convicted of giving secret military information to the Germans and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devils Island. Antisemitism played an important role in the real-life case but is hardly mentioned in the film. Even after the military found definitive evidence that Dreyfus was innocent, the army decided to cover it up rather than face the scandal of having arbitrarily convicted the wrong man. Zola's famous letter, J'Accuse (I Accuse), led to his own trial for libel where he was ...Written by
At the beginning of the film, Zola is warned to stop "muckraking." This term did not come into use until about 40 years after the period shown in the film. See more »
[reading from his letter "I Accuse"]
I shall tell the truth. Because if I did not, my nights would be haunted by the spectre of an innocent man expiating under the most frightful torture a crime he never committed.
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Handsomely mounted in the Warner Brothers style of the 30's, and topped off with a stirring Max Steiner score, "The Life of Emile Zola" (***) remains a passionately engrossing experience. Refreshingly, the film admits upfront right after the opening titles that it's a fictionalization, something that isn't done nearly as often it should be in today's purportedly "true story" docudramas. (These days, this disclaimer is often buried in the fine print at the very end of the credits after nearly everyone has left the theater.) Even so, "Zola" remains remarkably true to the facts. It skips lightly over the author's early years in the first 20 minutes and then soars to gripping dramatic heights in the outrageous libel trial that Zola underwent after he published his celebrated "J'Accuse" which condemned the hypocrisy and corruption of the military establishment as it falsely accused high-ranking Captain Alfred Dreyfus of treason and then attempted a massive cover-up when it realized it had made a mistake. The movie has been criticized for underplaying the anti-semitic aspects of the Dreyfus prosecution, but it's implied quite neatly in the scene where the camera pans down Dreyfus's resume to his religion while one of his superiors marvels how "someone like that" could became an officer. The film does indulge in some pretty fancy compression towards the end. It implies that Dreyfus was reinstated in the Army right after returning from Devil's Island and on the same day as Zola's tragic accidental death. However, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the real facts are even more disturbing and incredible. In 1899 after his return, Dreyfus was retried and found guilty again by a court tribunal! However, he was pardoned by the President. He was finally cleared of all charges and reinstated in the service in 1906, four years after Zola's death in 1902. Interesting sidelight: Zola and his devoted wife had no children but he did carry on a 14-year affair with one of his housemaids that produced 2 children. I guess there's no way the Warner Brothers were going to complicate the image of their hero as a saintly crusader for truth and justice by including this spicy little domestic tidbit.
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