Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Reeling Backward: "The Life of Emile Zola"

Paul Muni was a giant of the Golden Age of cinema who tragically has been forgotten by a large swath of cinephiles. Perhaps it's because he was such a chameleon. He used makeup and facial hair to take on so many personas, that it was said that few people knew what he really looked like. Among his roles was the lead in the original "Scarface," an escaped convict in "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" and the title role in "The Story of Louis Pasteur." He won the Oscar for that last one, and was nominated a total of six times for Best Actor.

"The Life of Emile Zola" has a misleading title -- it's not really a complete biography of the celebrated French writer/provocateur. It concentrates mostly on the final stage of his life, when Zola risked his comfortable existence to champion a military officer who had been railroaded into a treason rap. Public sentiment ran high against the would-be traitor and anyone who would defend him. Zola triumphed in setting Alfred Dreyfus free, and died shortly thereafter.

The film is a bit tedious during the first half, but really kicks off when it gets to the trial portion. Zola writes a letter accusing the French military command of covering up the affair, knowing that it will get him hauled into court on libel charges. This, he slyly calculates, is the only way to reopen the Dreyfus affair. Things go badly for a while, and Zola even has to flee the country for a time.

Muni is a wonder in the lead role, aging from an angry young man who would rather starve than compromise his principles to a rich and famous author who can bend the levers of power to his will. The underlying theme of the story is about remaining true to the desires that first animated you. Zola loses his way for awhile without even knowing it. The Dreyfus affair stokes his passions back to life.

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