By André Crous
Religion is theatre, so it comes as little surprise that the opening act of François Ozon’s By the Grace of God, a film dealing with a real-life church abuse scandal in the French city of Lyon, is mostly about people in robes speaking their lines but ultimately just playing roles. And yet, the feeling of despair is ubiquitous and, especially in the film’s first third, close to suffocating.
The story, by now, is a notoriously well-trodden one. However, it bears repeating because it appears the (perhaps tens of) thousands of priests engaged in this abominable, sometimes decades-long behaviour, have not been properly held to account. Columnist Dan Savage has rightly noted that, “If kids got raped by clowns as often as they get raped by pastors, it would be against the law to take your kids to the circus.”
And yet, even some of those who have been raped or otherwise molested continue to take their own children to church, perhaps in the devastatingly naïve belief that their own experience was unique. In the meantime, however, children continue to be exposed to predators who talk about forgiveness as much as they commit sins against the vulnerable children in their care.
Ozon’s film is broadly divided into three parts, although he struggles to connect them and the transitions are often very abrupt. In the first and arguably the best act, Melvil Poupaud stars as Alexandre, a middle-aged actuary and family man from Lyon who has decided to open up to his family and the church about the abuse he suffered at the hands of a local priest, Bernard Preynat, in his youth. He is encouraged by the recent pronouncements of Philippe Barbarin, a cardinal and the archbishop of Lyon, against child abuse, and he divulges everything to a mediator from the church, who writes a report and arranges a meeting between Alexandre and his erstwhile abuser, the paedophile priest.
All of this happens in a tranquillity rife with tension as Alexandre shields himself from an emotional breakdown, but the turmoil is always bubbling beneath the surface. Watching all of this unfold feels like the film is stepping on our chest, slowly asphyxiating us with the knowledge that the Church always, ALWAYS protects its own. Alexandre initially views the church as an ally in the fight instead of an accomplice in the cover-up, but he is slowly disabused of this notion as the facts come to light.
These facts include the realisation that there were multiple victims of Father Preynat’s predatory behaviour, including the leads in the film’s two subsequent acts. The first is François (Denis Ménochet), who has become an outspoken atheist; the second is the slightly younger Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), who suffers from epileptic seizures and still lives with his mother although he likes to boast that he is a “zebra”, a gifted child. The characters are all scarred in their own ways, and many of them have ended up in relationships with others who have gone through similar experiences, which seems to both soothe and compound the issues stemming from them. To fight back, they form the
Ozon’s decision to tell multiple stories gives a rich insight into the various ways in which people struggle with abuse, and by the end of the film it has become obvious that there are victims – of Preynat, of the Catholic Church writ large and of other abusers – in many more people than we might have thought.
However, once the first act climaxes with a stomach-churning scene in which Alexandre is forced to hold hands with his abuser while praying for strength, the film’s drama stalls. Unlike Spotlight or the stunning documentary feature Deliver Us from Evil, both of which had narratives that continually revealed more and more of what was hidden and who did the hiding, By the Grace of God lands very few serious body blows in its second and third acts. Instead, it focuses on the affected characters’ domestic lives, which come across as complex but fragmentary and not particularly coherent.
The production is far from polished: The scenes with Alexandre feel like completely removed from those of the much less affluent François and Emmanuel. The latter two also seem more willing to wage a fight against the Church, even if it means exposing themselves and their families to the wagging tongues of their friends, acquaintances and the influential society at large in Lyon, a city whose massive basilica towers over it from the top of Fourvière hill.
While all the men’s stories are given coverage in the flashbacks, the film does not go the whole hog and accuse the Church of complete knowledge or committing a cover-up. In Cardinal Barbarin, we see a man who says the right things in public but stalls behind the scenes and is unwilling to change the way things have always been done. He is a conservative but, as far as we can tell, not engaging full-on in the obstruction of progress. And yet, his plodding is infuriating because it can only be read in the most selfish way possible: No matter what offences his fellow priests have committed, we must forgive them because God forgives us. Ozon leaves some room for us to interpret the events, but both Preynat and the Church are almost certain to be viewed as culpable for serious harm caused to scores of children over decades.
If you are not a believer, you will receive some clear evidence to justify your lack of belief. If you do believe in God, this film ought to make you question, once again, why such unspeakable abuse is allowed to happen day in and day out, seemingly “by the Grace of God”.
Viewed at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival.
Director(s) François Ozon
Screenwriter(s) François Ozon
Directors of Photography Manuel Dacosse
Running Time 135 minutes
Original title Grâce à Dieu
Transliterated title Malchik russkiy
André Crous is a professional film critic and a member of FIPRESCI. He holds a French honour’s degree, two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. His research examined the works of Francois Truffaut, Mikhail Kalatazov, Martin Scorcese, Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Winterbottom. He writes about movies in his blog, Celluloid Paradiso and lives in Prague, Czech Republic. | Read More ⟩