By The Grace Of God (France / Belgium / 15A / 138 mins)
In short: Urgent and vital
Directed by Francois Ozon. Starring Melvil Poupaud, Denis Menochet, Swann Arlaud, Eric Caravaca, Bernard Verley.
The Plot: Lyon, 2014. Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud) is a happily married man with five children. Something from his childhood is still eating away at him though. It was the time that he was abused by priest Bernard Preynat while attending scouting activities. As an act of reconciliation, he is confronted with his abuser. Fr. Preynat, who still has contact with children, admits his abominable actions but stops short of begging for forgiveness. Alexandre is barred by the French Statute Of Limitations from prosecuting Fr. Preynat. However, his case opens the door to other men who come forward with similar stories – primarily the bullish and outright Francois (Denis Menochet) and the sensitive Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), who is seriously damaged by Fr. Preynat’s actions. Thus begins a long road to justice…
The Verdict: Francois Ozon, one of France’s finest contemporary directors, has never been one to shy away from controversy or tackling thorny subject matters. His films are carefully constructed to come across as intelligently handling these subject matters, while provoking an immediate audience reaction. He’s got a real hot potato on his hands with his new film By The Grace Of God, but one which is important, topical and needs to be made if cinema is to be more than just entertainment. In a film that will have particular resonance for an Irish audience, Ozon tackles real-life cases of child abuse in the Catholic Church in Lyon and the Church’s seeming paralysis on what to do with its troubled priests. While that might sound like a difficult sell to any audience, it’s the way this prescient film is handled that makes it such moving and compelling viewing.
Ozon’s script divides the film into three segments, relating the individual clerical abuse stories of Alexandre, Francois and Emmanuel while also interweaving them into the story of Fr. Preynat and his superior Cardinal Barbarin, who covered up such activities by allowing him to continue in his role. Each story relates varying degrees of gravity, but even they are shocked when even worse cases against Fr. Preynat come forward. The trio come together to form an organisation to tackle clerical abuse head-on, going to the media and taking a court case. The case against Fr. Preynat was ongoing when the film was released in France earlier this year, but the outcome was announced during the summer and may provide closure for the now-adult victims of his abuse. Of course, the pain never really goes away for these victims and Ozon shows great compassion for them and their cases against a powerful, centuries-old institution.
At one point in the film, one of the characters says he’s taking the case against Fr. Preynat for the Church, not against it. That’s an interesting perspective from Ozon, illustrating that there may be forthright anger, shame and disgust at play here, but also level-headed maturity in these now middle-aged men helping the Church root out the disease that has infected it for far too long. Things must change. The wheels of justice move slowly, but they do eventually get a result. Aside from the provocative subject matter, this is a gripping personal account of three men from different backgrounds and life situations dealing with how their lives have turned out and how there’s strength in solidarity. There are fine performances all round, with Menochet in particular moving on from his ferocious performance as an abusive husband/father in Custody to something equally powerful on the other side of the fence.
By The Grace Of God won’t be for everyone, but this well-acted and sensitively-handled true story about the fight for justice against clerical abuse is more thought-provoking than harrowing. This is urgent, vital filmmaking from an established and respected director who once again sends audiences out with food for thought – and how to make the world a better place.