Film Review: “By the Grace of God” — The Human Cost of Abuse

By Tim Jackson

Despite some glimmers of hope, By the Grace of God will not be an easy film for anyone — for loyal believers, for those disillusioned by the church, for anyone who has suffered from abuse.

By the Grace of God, directed by François Ozon. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA

A scene from “By the Grace of God.”

When Spotlight, the film about the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse cover-up won Best Picture in 2016, the film’s producer Michael Sugar said that “this film gave a voice to survivors and this Oscar amplifies that voice, which we hope will become a choir that will resonate all the way to the Vatican. Pope Francis, it’s time to protect the children and restore the faith.” Following the movie’s Oscar win, Cardinal Seán O’Malley issued the following statement: ‘We are committed to vigilant implementation of policies and procedures for preventing the recurrence of the tragedy of the abuse of children.” God knows (or does He?) that stories of abuse by the clergy are continuing to surface. And that the lives of the innocent continue to be broken.

Though inspired by Spotlight, prolific French director François Ozon takes a very different approach to an ongoing French church scandal in his film By the Grace of God.

During the ’80s, Father Bernard Preynat may have abused hundreds of children. Philippe Barbarin, the Catholic prelate who was serving as the Archbishop of Lyon (he still does — he was made a cardinal in 2003) failed to report it and then covered up the behavior. Unlike Spotlight, which is a procedural film based on the Globe investigation, Ozon focuses on the human cost of the crime. The director’s earlier films, such as Franz, Under the Sand, Swimming Pool, and 8 Women, were bold, transgressive, sensuous, and self-consciously cut across genres. In contrast, By the Grace of God is straightforward though still audacious, given its documentary-esque design. The movie generated an uproar in France with its unabashed descriptions of past clerical abuse and its careful dissection of how this heinous behavior never stops impacting the lives of victims and their families. Drawing on verbatim transcripts and extensive research, Ozon elaborates on the facts of a real-life disgrace to create a fictionalized story that revolves around three men who start up a campaign to bring the injuries and negligence of the church to light.

The opening scene is a powerful indictment of the church’s abuse of its privilege. Shot from behind, the cardinal in all his finery looks down over the city as we cut to an elaborate Catholic ceremony. We hear a voice-over, words from a letter sent to the church by Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupaud). They graphically detail Guérin’s abuse by Father Preynat 30 years earlier. That priest (a chilling performance by Bernard Verley) is back in Lyon. Guérin, a practicing Catholic who lives in the city with his wife and five children, requests to meet with the priest. He is demanding an apology — and an assurance that the man will be kept from working with children. Guérin’s conference with the cardinal is a masterpiece of obfuscation. “Could we not use the word ‘pedophile,’” he suggests. “The root of the word is actually a man who loves children.” “What word should I use? Pedosexual?” responds a frustrated Guérin. “That would be better,” replies the cardinal. Guérin gets to have a meeting with Father Preynat and, surprisingly, the priest admits to his decades-old “problem,” but no apology is forthcoming. Broken and dissatisfied, Guérin sends increasingly desperate emails, but they trigger no meaningful action. To wage a legal battle, he needs witnesses whose charges occurred before the statute of limitations had expired. The title of the film is a quote from a press conference where the cardinal smugly says that “By the grace of God the statute of limitations has ended.” One reporter takes that statement to task and questions further. Soon a grassroots campaign for accountability begins to build.

Another victim, François Debord (Denis Ménochet), is resistant about going public, at least at first. “I thought Preynat was dead,” he says. After finding out that the pedophile priest is once again working with children, Debord, now an avowed atheist, turns into the energetic backbone of the protest movement. Many victims are reluctant to come forward after 30 years, but a third victim, Emmanuel Thomassin (Swann Arlaud), accepts his role. Having been sexually abused for years, it is he who whose life appears to have been the most negatively impacted. As a youth, he was considered a “zebra,” a term used for individuals with IQ’s over 140. In the present his life is at a dead end; he suffers seizures and is in an abusive relationship with a woman who has also suffered from some sort of unexplained ill-treatment. Her anger stems from believing that Thomassin receives more attention for his pain than she does. It is a vicious cycle.

Ozon’s film highlights how powerfully individuals are impacted by clergy abuse, many in severe distress 30 years or more after it ended. Each of the three stories examines a range of post-traumatic realities. While the plot is structured like a procedural, By the Grace of God focuses on victims and families. The film’s 137 minutes are populated by what may be one of the finest acting ensembles this year. Often shot in tight close-up, the succession of tension-filled conversations (as well as fleeting glances among characters) offer compelling glimpses into the myriad ways that faith, family, and memory intertwine and collide. Flashbacks to disturbing interactions between Preynat and young males are not exploitative — they are a vital part of the film’s emotional tapestry.

It is clear that trust and understanding, from families and spouses, are the keys to healing, or at least they are necessary for victims to overcome the challenges posed by recovery. Ironically, the men’s parents have differing reactions to their children’s victimization by the church. Some are angered by having their confidence in the servants of God undercut. Despite some glimmers of hope, By the Grace of God will not be an easy film for anyone — for loyal believers, for those disillusioned by the church, for anyone who has suffered from abuse. In the end, can faith ever be restored or can lives be reclaimed? The Grace of God wistfully and smartly leaves those elemental questions unanswered.

Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.

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