French writer-director François Ozon has made a mesmerizing and deeply human film that not only has sweep and power dealing with a searing problem in France, but has something to say for our own country as well in view of so many similar events occurring here. Ozon has taken a real-life moral and legal case and has explored it deeply with a drama that is close to the actual situation and right out of the headlines. At the end there is an update informing the audience of outcomes since the film’s completion.
The story involves three adult men who courageously unite to seek justice against a priest in Lyon who abused them when they were boys, and also to expose the Catholic church cover-up that enabled the priest to continue working with youth. The film achieves depth by showing the bravery it takes to come forward and the effect their action has within their families.
The men are Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupaud), François Debord (Denis Ménochet) and Emmanuel Thomassin (Swann Arlaud), and all three are performed very convincingly. I can’t stress enough the way the film digs into family reactions, which makes it much more than a polemic as it probes the human side of undertaking such an effort. Viewers will recognize that what the men go through in coming forward is similar to what men and women here struggle with in deciding to speak out against various types of earlier abuse. The film shows how deeply hurt the boys were, and how their experience continued to haunt them in later life.
The pedophile priest, Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), has become a pathetic figure after the accusations surfaced, and the issue is raised as to whether there can be any forgiveness. One might feel slightly sorry for the by now hapless, exposed priest as acted by Verley, but only fleetingly, in view of the harm he has done and his thinking mainly of his own plight rather than the toll taken on his victims, Another leading character is Cardinal Philippe Barbarin (François Marthouret), who has been convicted of concealing the sins of Father Preynat. A key performance is also contributed by Martine Erhel as Régine Maire, a church aide who talks to the victims, supposedly with sympathy, but contributes to the cover-up.
“By the Grace of God” follows the case and the efforts of the men to obtain justice, and their deepening determination as they encounter delays and stalling, finally having to go to court to seek justice. A problem faced is the need to find a victim not beyond the statute of limitations.
Although packed with detail, the film always maintains its human focus, and there are moments likely to bring tears to one’s eyes. There is also some well-placed humor, as when the campaign mounts ideas are tossed about in a meeting on how to gain public attention, such as have a giant penis floating along in the sky (fortunately not accepted).
The cast of the film is fleshed out with impressive supporting performances, so that we get a solid sense of reality, almost as if this were a documentary, which the director has said he originally intended to do before opting for the present form. Put this down as among the best films of the year, not only for its pertinent, pressing content, but for the film’s artistry in the skillful hands of Ozon. A Music Box Films release. Reviewed October 15, 2019.