By the Grace of God, 2019.
Directed by François Ozon.
Starring Melvil Poupaud, Denis Ménochet, and Swann Arlaud.
Alexandre lives with his wife and children in Lyon. One day he discovers by chance that the priest who abused him when he was a Boy Scout is still working with young people, and long repressed memories awaken.
François Ozon’s Jury Grand Prix winner from this year’s Berlinale tackles tough material with an expectedly sensitive and introspective eye, lending another valuable perspective to the many cases of sexual abuse levelled against the Catholic Church worldwide.
After abuse survivor Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud) learns that the priest who abused him as a youngster, real-life child molester Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), is still working alongside young people, he seeks to take action against the Church, banding together with a group of survivors and their families to expose the heinous wrongdoing.
Despite the obvious horror and urgency of the material, it’s also one which can paradoxically produce such ill-wrought cinematic results, either by excessively leaning into the salaciousness of the abuse itself, or by following a through-line so respectfully benign or procedural as to downplay the gravity of what took place.
Yet a filmmaker of Ozon’s talents couldn’t make an also-ran film about this subject if he tried, and from mere minutes into By the Grace of God, the specifics of Preynat’s abuse are being detailed (while avoiding the aforementioned potential for indulgence).
What follows the upsetting opening description is a tense, awkward meeting between Alexandre and Preynat, which concludes in the most unexpected of circumstances, with Preyant freely admitting his abuses. After this, the film leaps off to become a damning indictment of the Catholic Church’s refusal to do what needs to be done, even when the accused straight-up admits it.
Over a gruelling-yet-necessary 137 minutes, Ozon’s film details the full breadth of the Church’s reach, extending to the point that many victims and their families feel manacled to the institution, both personally and financially, and therefore unable to take action.
On a broader level Ozon also considers generational attitudes to abuse, the effectiveness of punishing offenders against forgiveness, and the complexity of victims having their voices heard, especially given the potential for disagreement re: who is truly complicit, and whether that push-back should be quiet and measured or loud and angry.
Ultimately, the systemic abuse is multi-faceted and prevents both victims and their relatives from moving on with their lives, but Ozon dares to layer even more nuance on top by briefly considering the abuser’s position, also. Though Preynat isn’t in the movie much, there is a desire here to consider pedophilia as an illness, while of course not excusing the depravity of the afflicted acting on their compulsions.
Again, though, this isn’t the focal argument, if still a compellingly brave one to make in a time where many won’t want to hear it (if they ever will). The film is primarily a tribute to the victims who, in their bravery, seek to ensure that priests like Preynat aren’t enabled by a system categorically constructed to turn a blind eye.
And the three central victims are played with compelling aplomb by Melvil Poupaud, Denis Ménochet, and Swann Arlaud, each giving a brave and deeply nuanced performance that unquestionably elevates the already well-read material. As atheist accuser François, Ménochet gets surely the meatiest material of the bunch, especially an unforgettably awkward Christmas dinner scene, while Arlaud paints a compelling picture of the psychological scars levied by historic abuse through his rattled Emmanuel.
There are a few minor issues, which could perhaps be called nitpicks, yet nevertheless distract from the whole; the presence of a poster of the Best Picture-winning movie Spotlight, itself an expose of the Catholic Church’s wrongdoing, might prompt an eye-roll from some viewers in its heavy-handedness, and a brief melodramatic subplot involving Emmanuel’s jealous girlfriend feels a tad over-egged, even if the point it makes about abuse affecting subsequent personal relationships is apt enough.
Is By the Grace of God ultimately adding much new to a well-trod argument? Not necessarily, but it’s clearly something which needs to be repeated ad nauseum for the Church to perhaps one day take sufficient notice. With a wealth of emotional intelligence and a populated tableau of well-drawn characters, it’s a comprehensive portrait of institutional abuse that, infuriatingly, no doubt continue to be perpetuated today.
Ozon takes a typically enlightened approach to a difficult subject, aided by a remarkable trio of lead performances.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.