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French writer-director Francois Ozon (Double Lover, In the House) dials down his extreme, transgressive kinks but not his ability to grip with By the Grace of God, a traditional yet still stirring drama.
Told in three acts, with each one swapping perspective to a different character, the film begins with Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud, Laurence Anyways). A handsome middle-aged banker with a wife and five kids, on the surface his life seems perfect. However, he is appalled when he sees in the newspaper the priest he believed was defrocked for repeatedly abusing him as a boy is still working with children. A devout Catholic despite what happened to him, he decides to meet with the abuser (Bernard Verley). The latter admits with regret and in front of another church representative that he is a pedophile yet refuses to step down from his post.
Unsatisfied with the meeting and deeply disturbed by the fact the Catholic Church in France seemed to know of the priest’s actions for decades yet did nothing, Alexandre kickstarts a movement in which many of the other priest’s victims come forward. The action than shifts to the more jovial everyman Francois (an against type Denis Menochet – Custody, Only the Animals), an atheist similarly shocked to see his abuser leading classes with pre-teens. Since what happened to Alexandre and him falls outside the statute of limitations, Francois – fuelled by a righteous anger – starts a media campaign and website designed at finding other survivors and evidence of a Catholic Church cover-up.
One of these survivors is Emmanuel (a scrawny yet strong Swann Arlaud, The Anarchists). Unlike Alexandre and Francois, he has been left with long lasting physical damage and an inability to maintain a steady job despite a high IQ on account of his childhood experiences. In one of the film’s most tough to watch scenes, he suffers a violent seizure just from reading about the priest in a newspaper.
Despite its 137-minute runtime, By the Grace of God is extremely pacy, a melodrama which moves like a thriller. The film uses tight short scenes and smart narrative devices – a chain of e-mail correspondence functioning as exposition and rather stunning voiceover – to economically cover this horrendous case, based on true-life events. It also explores in a way which feels tangible and real the effect childhood abuse has had on its central survivors’ lives.
The religious Alexandre should be happy with his seemingly perfect life. Yet, how can he continue to worship a God, whose representatives do such heinous things. Francois, meanwhile, doesn’t have to worry about such spiritual matters. The moment the priest touched him as a boy, his connection to Catholicism was killed permanently. Emmanuel, on the other hand, is barely functioning. Lacking the familial support system Alexandre and Francois had, his childhood abuse has come to define every aspect of his life.
And that’s just the central characters. Ozon, through some very thoughtful and well-written vignettes, never forgets about others effected from similar trauma. Early on, Alexandre finds a victim named Didier (Pierre Lottin) whose crime against him falls within the statute of limitations. Weathered from a life on the margins, problems with addiction and a brother who committed suicide due to similar sex abuse, he’s only just managed to regain some normalcy with a job on a building site. As such, he refuses to testify out of a fear of having to relive his trauma – something the drama never judges him for, approaching the situation with understanding. The movie also doesn’t glance over survivors of non-Church related abuse with Alexandre and Emmanuel’s partners (Aurelia Petit and Amelie Daure).
Ozon’s direction is unobtrusive, letting the trio of pitch-perfect performances and the inherent anger and power of the story fuel the film. The latter is given extra heft just from how current it is. Indicted and defrocked, Bernard Preynat’s criminal trial is pending though he has admitted to molesting 70 boys over 30 years. Meanwhile, only in March 2019, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, Archbishop of Lyon, was given a six-month suspended prison sentence for covering up abuse. In fact, a press conference blunder from him discussing the statute of limitations is what gives the film its title: “The majority of cases, by the grace of God, are inadmissible.” Just by helping to alert people to such ongoing horrors, Ozon’s latest is essential viewing.