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Oscars Challenge #83: The Life of Emile Zola (1937) Movie Review

Sometimes a movie poster says a thousand words. It may hide easter eggs for fans that may spoil or misdirect them regarding the plot.

What makes the movie poster for The Life of Emile Zola confusing is that the character in the movie does not look like the one presented. I don't know if that was intended to boost its sales or not.

Plot Overview

The Life of Emile Zola is a biographical movie about the renowned French author Emile Zola.

Set during the mid to late 19th Century, the film explores Emile Zola and his involvement in the Dreyfus affair.

The movie begins with the lead character struggling to make amends. His fiancee Alexandrine convinces him to look for a desk job at a bookshop, but he gets fired after an employer gets angry due to his provocative novel. Emile witnesses injustices happening on the streets and society of France. He was inspired to make his first bestseller, Nana, after meeting a street prostitute hiding from the police.

Emile Zola continues to write outstanding works despite trying the authorities trying to censor his work. He became rich, famous, and influential to other people. Meanwhile, the French military accused Alfred Dreyfus of being a spy because of his Jewish background, and was sent to Devil's Island.

A couple of years later, Dreyfus' wife seeks help from Emile Zola to expose the injustices happening in the military. Zola was initially reluctant but decided to help them after reading the letter from Dreyfus.


While the movie's premise focuses on Emile Zola's fight for anti-semitism and his impact on the controversial Dreyfus affair, the film tries to evade the topic. They did mention Dreyfus being Jew once or twice, but it was never clear what Emile Zola was fighting for unless you know his history. But if you look at when the movie premiered and, of course, Hitler's rise in Germany, I think it's safe to assume that they did not want to upset the leader back then.

The actor who played Emile Zola delivered an outstanding speech near the end of the film about the injustices and corruption that affected French society. That scene might be one of the best monologues of all time.

Despite having a controversial take on anti-semitism, the film was praised for its historically accurate portrayal of Emile Zola's life and struggles. It's nice to know that movies like these exist because, nowadays, filmmakers often remove historical bits to increase the spectacle it brings to the audience.

The Life of Emile Zola might not be the best out of all the Best Picture winners, but it certainly deserves its praise, especially trying to portray a topic that might put you in dangerous controversies. I believe this is a critical watch to learn more about history.

A good 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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