15 September 2004 | Snow Leopard
A Well-Crafted, Worthwhile Memorial to Zola
This well-crafted film is a worthwhile memorial to Émile Zola, one of the finest writers of his era, and one who deserves to be better-known today outside of his own country. It seems likely that Zola, a naturalistic writer who always used lifelike, genuine characters who had both strengths and weaknesses, would probably have been satisfied with the way he is portrayed by Paul Muni and by the screenplay. Zola is shown not as a flawless hero or as a larger-than-life icon, but as a real person with a talent for writing, who was willing to struggle both to establish himself and to remain true to his principles.
The movie makes a good selection of events from Zola's life, looking both at his earlier years, when he was struggling to establish himself, and at his later years, when as a respected member of society he had to fight his own reluctance to remain true to his ideals. The supporting cast have smaller parts, but they generally do quite well. Vladimir Sokoloff has a couple of nice scenes as Cézanne, and his interactions with Muni are quite helpful in defining the main character, especially as he changes once attaining personal success. Joseph Schildkraut makes good use of his scenes as Dreyfus.
Zola's lifetime was also an interesting and often tumultuous period in France's own history, and the movie provides at least a small taste of that.
There was, for example, even more to the Dreyfus situation than is shown here, but it and other historical events are shown mainly as they involved Zola himself - otherwise, to do justice to the events in themselves, the movie would have had to be several times as long. There's plenty here as it is to make it worthwhile, both as a good drama and as a believable portrait of Zola.