As the Catholic church continues to wrestle with how to deal with decades of sexual abuse scandals, cinema remains vigilant in holding up a mirror to the atrocities. Similar to the Oscar winning film Spotlight, By the Grace of God is a ripped from the headlines drama inspired by the case of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon who was charged with concealing the conduct of Father Preynat, a priest whose allegations of pedophilia dates back to 1986.
Made while the trial was still in progress, the latest work from French auteur François Ozon has already stirred up its share of controversy. Preynat’s lawyers even tried to postpone the release of the film, however, a judge ultimately allowed it to hit theatres in France this past February.
A fictionalized treatment of real events, Ozon’s film is both a scathing commentary and a tale of bravery and compassion. The film celebrates the victims of sexual abuse who found the strength to expose their abusers. It also serves as a vessel to remind others who are not ready or unable to speak their truth that they are not alone. By the Grace of God effectively captures the deep emotional, and in some cases physical, scars that many sexual abuse survivors often endure by focusing on three specific individuals.
Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud) has carved out a nice life for himself, his wife and children in Lyon. By mere chance he learns one day that Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), the priest that abused him in scouts as a child, is not only back in town but still working with children. Raising the issue with Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret) and receiving no concrete assurance that anything will come of his complaint, Alexandre decides to investigate the matter himself.
What Alexandre uncovers is a systemic cover-up that will lead him to other survivors, including François (Denis Ménochet) and Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), who are tired of carrying the burden of their experiences alone. Forming a support group for Preynat’s victims, the men must not only confront past trauma’s if they hope to get justice, but also face the realities that not everyone supports exposing the sins of the church.
In allowing Alexandre, François and Emmanuel to drive the narrative in specific sections of the film, Ozon taps into the wide spectrum of reverberations this type of abuse causes. Some of the film’s most gripping moments are not when the men each encounter Preynat, but rather when they face the guilt, jealousy and resentment within their own families. In the case of François and Emmanuel, the dinner table quickly transform into a battleground where unspoken emotions come to the surface. This tension can be found amongst the support group as well.
Despite the commonality of their tragic experiences, the men frequently find themselves at odds with there own connection to faith and the institution that fosters it. Some like Alexandre still cling to their faith, believing the church can change within, while others feel the church’s hypocrisy is too great to ignore.
While Ozon does not judge the victims who still find solace in faith, he also does not let the church off the hook.
Using brief flashbacks to set the stage, Ozon lets each of the men’s explicit testimony linger in the air. It is uncomfortable and hard to hear, but it also comes with a sense of empowerment. No longer will they suffer in silence while the man who preyed on them roams free.
By the Grace of God may open with a striking image of a vestment adorned priest overlooking Lyon while conducting morning prayers, but its heart is with those below. The individuals who not only survived abuse, but found the inner strength to stand up to a system that used prayers to prey on the most vulnerable.