1937: The Life of Emile Zola

(Originally published on November 17, 2010)

Why hello 🙂 Please pardon my long absence; I took a long spring and summer hiatus because it is really hard for me to watch movies inside when good weather beckons from the outside. Actually, that is not a very good excuse because we did not really get a summer here in Portland. It rained till mid-June and picked up again in late August. I simply got busy with substitute teaching and making sandwiches at night.

Well, enough with the weather report and complaining about the lack of good weather. I am here to report on good movies that have been nearly lost to time. To be honest, I got a bit stuck last February on the Life of Emile Zola. However, chronologically, the movie just didn’t go away over the summer. It is still the 1937 Best Picture Winner and when I renewed my Netflix account last month, there it was sitting at the top of my queue still waiting to be tackled. I struggled again to overcome this hurdle (because I’m looking forward to the next two movies) and the DVD sat on my bedroom floor for a week. Thankfully, it turns out that my mom, who never watches movies with our family, actually loves old movies. So we curled up in her bed with our dog and I finally watched The Life of Emile Zola and it was surprisingly gripping.

Plot Summary

This is an epic story of a writer fighting for social justice. Emile Zola was a struggling writer in his early 20s living in Paris with Paul Cezanne, the famous painter. Zola finally catches a break, writing about the gutter of Paris. The public loves his books and eventually Zola is able to secure financial stability for himself and his bride, Alexandrine.

Life passes comfortably for many years and Zola continues to write and publish. Rather abruptly the plot of Zola’s life thickens as the treason case of Alfred Dreyfus sweeps across France and threatens to bring down the French Army. Dreyfus is an Army Official and a Jew who is framed for giving military secrets away to Germany, even while all the other French Officials know who the real culprit is.Dreyfus is stripped of all titles and medals and exiled to Devil’s Island. After his exile, the other officials continue to keep mum and the web of lies grows because nobody wants to admit a wrong and hurt the honor of the French Army.

Zola’s friends, confidantes, and even Dreyfus’s wife plead with Zola to take on the case, to make it known to the public. His lifelong friend, Cezanne points out to Zola that he has fallen into the comfortable life that he ridiculed in his earlier books. Eventually, Zola returns to his roots, takes on the case, makes it public, and even offers himself as a sacrifice in court to see justice restored.

The end of the movie, especially Zola’s death, is a trifle anticlimactic albeit satisfying. However, the screenplay does leave us with a deep and thoughtful eulogy of Zola and his attitude toward life.

Major themes:

–the importance of telling the truth despite the consequences

–the imperfections of government

–honoring one’s country

–the necessary evil of admitting and righting a wrong

–personal sacrifice on behalf of a greater good

–fighting for those who are unable to speak for themselves


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