(Review originally written at 2 July 2008)

Emile Zola was besides a famous French writer, at the end of the 19th century, also a fighter for justice and freedom of speech. He often opposed the French government and military top, which made him unpopular in certain circles, while popular in others again.

The movie is mostly about the Dreyfuss Affair and not as much about the person Emile Zola. This was not the first biopic ever shot and movies from around this time period normally commonly didn't focused on the actual character but more on the interesting story around him. As for the portrayal of Emile Zola in this movie, he in this movie is constantly being shown as a great and righteous man that always had his answer ready. It's almost superhuman like and therefor not also really believable but if you can look through this, this is a pretty fine movie to watch.

For me it's hard to believe that this is the same guy who played tough guys in movies such as "Scarface" and "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" but he was just as successful and known for his character roles, such as in this movie and other movies such as "The Story of Louis Pasteur". No wonder he also received an Oscar nomination for his role in this movie. He received in his lifetime 4 more nominations and he won one. No wonder he was one of the best and most popular actors of the '30's.

The most impressive and powerful sequences of the movie are the ones in the courtroom, in which Emile Zola gets prosecuted for his famous 'J'Accuse...!' letter, in which he accused the French government and military of covering up that they had falsely accused army captain Alfred Dreyfus of treason and giving him a life sentence on the notorious Devil's Island, also known from the novel and movie "Papillon". Those are some powerful and inspiring sequences, in which the freedom of speech and cry for justice are delivered effectively.

It however also has as an effect that the rest of the movie, especially the beginning feels sort of obsolete. It isn't about the Dreyfus affair and concentrates more on Emile Zola's starting career as a writer. This in the long run doesn't really serve enough purpose for the movie though and it makes the first hour of the movie perhaps feel as a waste of time, which could had been spend better to the rebel Zola and his fight for justice, mainly involving the Dreyfus Affair. As a matter of fact, the movie would had probably been a better one if it simply focused on the Dreyfus Affair and the movie would had also been called "The Dreyfus Affair", rather than "The Life of Emile Zola", since the movie in the long run is also mostly about that and not as much as the other good and revolutionary things Zola did in his life.

Besides Paul Muni, also the other actors are all great. Like many movies that are about- and are set in an European countries, the movie has an almost non-English/American cast and the cast mostly consists out of actors from across Europe. Just of course got mostly done for the movie its accent and authentic looks. Yeah, it's cheap to let 'foreigners' portray 'foreign' characters but it almost always works out well though. It's better than having an obvious well known and acclaimed British or American actor trying to speak in a thick foreign accent.

A great early Oscar winning biopic, despite its obvious flaws with its story.


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About Frank Veenstra

Watches movies...writes about them...and that's it for now.
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