Based on recent real-life events, in By the Grace of God François Ozon empathetically opens up a French scandal of child abuse in the Catholic Church going back over 20 years.
Our Fatherby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
In 2014, Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), a happy married family man with five children, a devout Catholic, was outraged to find the priest who had abused him as a child still celebrating mass and teaching catechism to boys as if no disciplinary action had ever been taken to stop him. Thus started his battle with the Church hierarchy to remove the priest from the church or to stop his activities as a paederast. The actual text of his letters and emails to Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret), used in voiceover as the film starts, shows the polite nature of the correspondence which led to a mediated meeting with the now-aged priest Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley) – but achieved precisely nothing.
Frustrated by the Church’s stonewalling, Alexandre decides to go to the police, but this means he will need other victims to back up his complaint. When he tracks down others – adults now – who had been at the priest’s summer camps with him, some react with shame and don’t want to reveal what happened to them, others are still so traumatised that they break down when asked about it.
The film focuses on the contrasting reactions of Alexandre, who has retained his faith; François (Denis Ménochet), who has not, and who, though initially reluctant to go public, throws himself into creating a media storm about their complaint; and Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), a highly intelligent man who is still so damaged that his life has been ruined, has developed epilepsy, and who can only cope with an abusive relationship with a girlfriend who was also abused.
The underlying story and investigation is like a baton passed from person to person between the three of them as it evolves. The pressure group that they start grows ever larger and the subject wider as, because of the snowballing publicity around them, more and more abused men start to come forward.
We get to know these three men and see the long-lasting effects that childhood abuse had on them. As their stories develop, we see brief flashbacks leading up to their abuse, but never the abuse itself. Father Preynat has never denied what he did, either to them now or at the time: many times he asked the Church for help with his ‘problem with children’. But he was not helped: the Church knew but did nothing. Outwardly, he was a popular, aimiable priest, there was a shortage of priests so they did not want to lose him, so those in authority covered up his paedophilia by transferring him frequently from parish to parish.
Shot in a realistic style unlike Ozon’s previous films, By the Grace of God is a long film that does justice to its sensitive subject matter. It lays bare the hypocrisy at the heart of the established Church, its failure to report and deal with the serious problem of paedophilia in its ranks and its refusal to evolve. For the activists, they have to consider the borderline between justice and revenge, their reaction to the fact that the perpetrator may never be brought to justice through the courts and whether or not what happened affects their belief in God.
By the Grace of God is a totally involving film about what has in recent years been revealed as a widespread problem in the Catholic Church and a major topical issue of concern. It’s quite a departure for Ozon and he handles the sensitive material unsensationally and empathetically. Someone who has seen By the Grace of God was so moved by it that he told me it was the most accurate portrayal of abuse that he had ever seen on film. And, it transpired, he should know what he was talking about as he said he himself as a boy had been abused by a priest – in the confessional.
By the Grace of God premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, where it won the Silver Bear, screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 25 October 2019 in the UK.