Film review: “By the Grace of God”

François Ozon, the acclaimed French director behind 8 femmes and The Swimming Pool, turns his gaze to the story of sexual abuse in the Catholic church with his latest film By the Grace of God

by Steve Murray

3.5 out of 5 stars

As I watched the first half of François Ozon’s By the Grace of God, already aware of its running time (137 minutes), I couldn’t help wondering: Does it really need to be so long? After all, it’s by now a sadly common story: the fact-based tale of adults stepping forward to acknowledge being sexually abused as children by a priest they trusted, then going public in a search for justice against both the cleric and the church that covered up his crimes.

The movie is set in France. Spotlight won the best picture Oscar for covering the same story, Boston-vicinity, in 2015. Honestly – but keep in mind, I wouldn’t be writing about Grace if it weren’t worth your time — that was superficially a juicier, audience-friendly movie, peppered with the familiar, American faces of Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams. 

The one face discerning viewers might recognize in Grace is that of Melvil Poupaud, a French art-house staple who has worked with Ozon before (Time to Leave) as well as Arnaud Desplechin (A Christmas Tale). In this lightly fictionalized film about real, recent events, he plays 40-year-old Alexandre Guérin, happily married with five children and still a faithful Catholic, prepping his two oldest boys for their confirmation. 

His comfortable routine changes, though, when he runs into an old boyhood friend, a fellow recruit to the church-run scouting program when they were kids in Lyon. “Did Father Preynat fondle you, too?” the friend casually asks. This, and seeing a newspaper photo of Preynat (Bernard Verley) still overseeing children at his church, prompts Alexandre’s decision to write to Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret)  to ask, basically, the French equivalent of WTF?

Particularly in its first hour, deploying the actual letters and phone calls made at the time, the film is swift, dry, matter-of-fact. Ozon never tries on the same genre more than once. His many films include the psychodrama Under the Sand, the twisty thriller Swimming Pool, the camp musical 8 Women, the Pirandellian In the House, the retro boulevard comedy Potiche, and the pseudosexual Hitchcock/De Palma exercise, Double Lover. Try to pin him down? Good luck with that. But generally, he scores with any genre he tackles, and he does again here. 

The film’s focus on a single man’s story changes mid-stream with the introduction of one, and then another crucial protagonist. First there’s François Debord (Denis Ménochet), a teddy bear of a man who, when he hears that Alexandre has filed a complaint against the diocese, joins the fight by going to the media and making a much more public stink. His beef with the church is louder than that of Alexandre, who only wants Fr. Preynat to ask forgiveness. “You’re taking on a man,” François says. “I’m taking on an institution.” 

The third leg of the stool is Emmanuel Thomassin (Swann Arlaud), a frail, working-class man with a doting mom and an emotionally volatile girlfriend. He’s prone to seizures on being confronted with bad news. He’s on the floor a lot. But he also joins the public campaign for redress against a church that he feels, in his childhood, has thwarted his prospects as an adult. 

Showing us the different lives of these three protagonists, the movie seeds questions of the eternal nature-versus-nurture debate that it wisely doesn’t address directly. Those questions linger after the film ends. To its credit also, By the Grace of God in its last minutes assembles the survivors of abuse for a dinner that, in another movie, would be a celebratory occasion, glasses hoisted high. Here we see that there can be no victory in situations like this. Even people who have suffered the same kind of mistreatment won’t always see things the same way. 

At the start I mentioned concern with the film’s length. But it’s a stealth movie. The stately, just-the-facts approach of its first half gives way to an unexpected emotional punch. Without seemingly attempting to, it becomes gripping, even though there are no movie-friendly scenes of high emotion or elevated drama. The facts are the facts. 

The film’s title comes from an unfortunate turn of phrase delivered by Cardinal Barbarin at a press conference. He says Fr. Preynat cannot be prosecuted for most of the alleged violations, because the statutes of limitations have elapsed “by the grace of God.” Chastised by a reporter for such a sentiment, Barbarin hastily pretends it was a slip of the tongue. But the wording underscores the presumption and arrogance underlying centuries of evasion and concealment, tricked out in the guise of holiness. The case against Fr. Preynat is still ongoing in Lyon. If he is ever brought to trial, they should probably play this movie in the courtroom. 

Steve Murray is an award-winning arts journalist who has written about film, theater, books, and television for a quarter century. 

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