Writer and Director: François Ozon
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Any film about child abuse and the Catholic Church is certain to draw comparisons with Spotlight, which treated the subject almost as a thriller. François Ozon’s By The Grace of God takes a slower route and follows the lives of three victims as they fight for justice. It’s a long and thoughtful film examining issues such as faith and culpability. It is ultimately rewarding.
We meet first Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupaud) who has begun writing to Philippe Barbarin, the Cardinal Archbishop of Lyon about the times he was molested as a boy by a priest who ran a local scout group. Alexandre knows he can’t take the priest to court because of the statute of limitations in France: the abuse occurred so far in the past the police are unable to prosecute. Instead, he wants to make sure that the priest is defrocked, and that he delivers a public apology. Even though Alexandre is a committed Catholic, he is not sure that he can forgive.
Voiceovers take centre stage in the opening minutes of this film, charting the exchange of letters between various people, and it’s a credit to Ozon’s pacing that these voiceovers never become tedious. The film moves quickly towards its first showdown, a meeting between Alexandre and Father Preynat, the priest who abused him.
At about 45 minutes into the film, the main protagonist is suddenly swapped and we begin to follow François Debord’s story. Played well by Denis Ménochet, he is even more determined to make public the ways Barbarin, and by extension the Catholic Church as a whole, protected the priest despite the many complaints about his behaviour. François takes centre stage just at the right time, even bringing some comedy with his hare-brained schemes to create a social media buzz to their campaign, which is now entitled ‘Lift The Burden’.
But it is the story of Emmanuel Thomassin (Swann Arlaud) that eventually drives forward the narrative. Poorer than the rest and a sufferer of seizures since his abuse, Emmanuel has the most to gain in this fight for justice. Arluad is excellent here, and gives Emmanuel a fragility that contrasts against the perfect families and beautiful houses of Alexandre and François. But together these men make a formidable force, and their quiet power lies in their very differences.
Ozon is very restrained here and he never manipulates the viewer with soaring strings. Instead he lingers on the faces of his actors, and he is able to make this film feel very real. Besides the main characters there is excellent work from Josiane Balasko, who as Emmanuel’s mother, sublimates her guilt into charitable ways. As François’ mother, Hélène Vincent excels and her grief is almost palpable, and, as Alexandre’s wife, Aurélia Petit gives a very touching performance. Bernard Verley is remarkable as Father Preynat, seeming to embody him – his crimes, and his confusion – completely.
By The Grace of God seems a long way from the films that made Ozon famous, such as 8 Women and Swimming Pool, but this new maturity is the perfect approach for this difficult subject. Apart from a few flashbacks, which are superfluous, the film is located in the present, and the men’s realisation that they have agency after all means that this exposé of the Catholic Church is primarily about hope.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October