By The Grace Of God (Grâce à Dieu)
France/Belgium (2019) Dir. François Ozon
“God teaches us to love children. Just not that much.”
These words are not meant in jest, spoken by a high-ranking cardinal when discussing an accusation of historical sexual child abuse by one of his priests. Based on real events, this is the story of how the Catholic church’s cover up of such heinous actions was exposed by a group of former victims who took matters into their own hands.
In 2014, 40 year-old father of five Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupaud), a devout Catholic, learns that father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley) the man who abused him as a child for three years was not only still active in the clergy but also still working with children. Outraged, Alexandre contacts Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret) for answers but is not satisfied with his response.
Hiding behind a 20-year window of the statute of limitations, Barbarin admits Preynat is unlikely to be tried, so Alexandre goes to the media, forcing an official inquiry in which more of Preynat’s victims are discovered. Inspired by Alexandre, François Debord (Denis Ménochet), Gilles Perret (Éric Caravaca), and Emmanuel Thomassin (Swann Arlaud) unite to hold the church accountable for their cover up and see Preynat prosecuted.
François Ozon is known for being a fearless and uncompromising filmmaker across his varied oeuvre, so the thought of him tackling a sensitive subject like the cover up of child abuse raise a few flags. Fortunately, Ozon is smart enough to know when to bare his fangs and when to play it straight, which he does here and to his credit, delivers a confrontational film but for very different reasons.
Likely to be seen as a Gallic cousin of the Oscar Winning Hollywood Spotlight due to the same themes, By The Grace Of God is a more dispassionate and observant film rather than a didactic attack on the Catholic church. In that respect, it is surprisingly calm but that is where its power lies – in how calm the clergy is in abrogating their responsibility and knowledge of Preyant’s actions.
At the heart of the tale is three different men and how their lives were affected by their childhoods and ultimately their faith in the church. Alexandre remains resolutely devout, bring up his children the same way, which never waivers even when he doesn’t get the answers he wants from Barbarin. The only time he feels conflicted is when he meets Preyant who is barely repentant – he complains about being beaten up for abusing other kids – despite admitting his sins, never apologises, and doesn’t ask for forgiveness.
Even Barbarin finds this curious but has nothing to offer Alexandre who admits he would find it hard to forgive Preyant, but since his issue is that Preyant is still being allowed near children it is a fight he needs to have. The investigation brings up numerous more complaints against Preyant from when he was a scout master, with families who kept copies of the letters of complaint they made back in the day that were ignored.
One of them was François’ mother (Hélène Vincent), who held onto this longer than her son did, who is now married and a father. At first he is reluctant to reopen old wounds but Alexandre’s news article gives him the courage to speak out. But, unlike Alexandre, François finds his faith in the church compromised by their failure to act on the complaints, exacerbated when it emerges Barbarin knew about Preyant all along.
Suffering the most was Emmanuel. Unable to form meaningful relationships with women and prone to seizures, Emmanuel avoids the church now; his parents are divorced, his mother (Josiane Balasko) standing by him out of guilt, in contrast to his boorish father (Christian Sinniger) who thinks his son should man up and get over it.
The trio of François, Gilles, and Alexandre form a support group and get their story wider media attention, encouraging more victims reach out, forcing a full investigation on orders from the Pope! The English title comes from Barbarin’s response at a press conference to the ignored historical complaints saying, “by the grace of God these events are subject to the statute of limitation” and is justifiably roasted by an angry journalist.
Whilst Spotlight was about journalists exposing a story, this is about the power of grass roots determination and victims fighting back for personal justice. It is no less gritty but the drama comes from a different place – it’s not driven by the search for the truth because we already know the truth, it is about getting those in a position of trust and power to admit the truth about their wrongdoings instead of trying to hide them.
Demonising the church would be too easy so Ozon doesn’t even try to, leaving the acts perpetrated speak for themselves and by avoiding the moral high ground, he simply delivers the facts. This way the cast’s motives and feelings come across as genuine and articulated without needing to suit a dramatic narrative, which is kept to a minimum, nicely wrapped up by a stonking, wry final line.
Given the variety of personalities and individual ways in handling the situation, it is hard to single out one cast member as they all gel well and complement each other, though Swann Arlaud’s raw essaying of Emmanuel will prove the most affecting for some. Conversely, Ozon’s pared back direction will be a surprise for those waiting for his usual sucker punch but this isn’t a film that needs one outside of what the story provides.
Now in jail, the real Preyant tried to block the release of By The Grace Of God as his case was ongoing but he failed since he had admitted his guilt and had been defrocked by the church. Ozon may have left his usual cinematic frills behind for this film but the blunt power of the straight talking stance adopted here will hit harder than any deliberate shock tactic can.