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I am so glad that I had read In Search of Lost Time before watching this movie. Within that movie the ‘Dreyfuss Affair’ was a persistent topic of conversation. It meant that going into this film that, despite my lack of knowledge of Émile Zola, I was able to come into this with a good grounding of the social schisms that formed due to this court case.
One thing that got me, something I only knew because of reading Proust, is that this film almost completely removes the references to Dreyfuss’ Jewish background. There is one part where you see it on his personnel file – but that is it. The fact that anti-Semitism was a key component in this case and increased exponentially throughout the French populace after his wrongful conviction.
I can not quite grasp why these references would have been taken out of the film. My only, cynical, guess is that they thought it would stifle their chance at winning an Oscar. As such, the court scenes, which are incredibly captivating, just felt a bit… lacking.
This is no way detracting from the performance of Paul Muni in the title role of Émile Zola. He is a force of nature throughout this film (which makes me think how I really need to see him in the 1932 film Scarface). I can’t judge whether he was robbed as I have not seen Captains Courageous but it would not have helped that he won it the year before.
In taking on the role of a semi-retired revolutionary author that has pretty much reached national treasure status who gets embroiled in a massively controversial court case, Muni is really able to give the gravitas required for the role of Zola. He is able to bring likeability to a character who is fairly pompous to begin with and then just grows and grows into the part.
Would I suggest this film? Definitely, it is a great history lesson into a case that is profoundly shameful for all concerned. It is a also a great lesson for just how profoundly unfair finally delivered justice can be.