. .Great fiction and great films, it seems to CV, must have at their core a wonderful story, a strong narrative with driving force. Mood pieces or pure character studies can take us only so far; unless the viewer wants to know what is going to happen next, more often than not attention will not be sustained. If a powerful story is there, it will grab the imagination and hold the interest of readers or viewers long beyond the time or style in which it was created.
The Life of emile Zola is a sixty year old film that is very conventional in style. It is a fictionalized version of the life of the great French writer and crusader for the poor and dispossessed, a literary champion of truth and justice. The first half of the film is almost formulaic – or seems so now; perhaps in 1937 it was a great deal fresher. We meet Zola as a young man, living in poverty with his great friend, the painter Paul Cezanne. With diligence and integrity, Zola works hard, follows his passion for truth, and becomes financially and artistically successful. Almost too much so, for he is resting on his laurels and the tale would be over – until it soars into life again with the introduction of the Dreyfus case.
Dreyfus, a career officer in the French army, was framed and convicted of treason, a scapegoat for the military establishment. While he languishes on Devil’s Island, his devoted wife pursues his cause, ultimately gaining access to Zola and kindling his instinct for seeing justice done. The film peaks in a superb, long trial scene, always a great dramatic setting for hearing out the pursuit of justice.
The strong story line is enhanced by intelligent dialogue and first rate performances by a stellar cast. Paul Muni is Zola, as a more modern ad campaign might put it. He is supported especially well by Gale Sondergaard as Madame Dreyfus. In handsomely composed black and white, the film is technically excellent. Editing, costuming, lighting – indeed, all the production values stand up beautifully these many years later.
If CV has one lingering caution in mind, it is why the crucial anti-Semitic aspect of the Dreyfus case is totally ignored, particularly in a film made at a moment in history when the persecution of Jews was, once again, tragically accelerating. Perhaps there is an answer to that question somewhere in the film history books.
Meanwhile, if you haven’t seen it, The Life of emile Zola, easily available on video, makes a great evening’s entertainment.