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Four years after “Spotlight,” François Ozon’s “By the Grace of God” casts a wary, investigative eye toward yet another Catholic Church molestation scandal, this one taking place in the Archdiocese of Lyon, France. Rather than focus on the journalists who reported the story, Ozon follows three men who were all victims of the same priest, Father Preynat (Bernard Verley). While this is a true story, Ozon goes the fictional movie route, taking a bit of dramatic license while keeping most of the actual details intact. The director impressively juggles the large scope of his script while maintaining the sense of intimacy for his male actors that he normally reserves for his female characters.
Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), François (Denis Ménochet) and Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud) all attended St. Luc summer camp, where Father Preynat oversaw the scouts. Since then, each has gone a different route via their faith, with the still-devout Alexandre on the opposite side of the spectrum as the vehemently atheistic Francois. Each character’s story of abuse is explored individually before bringing them all together at meetings for Francois’ organization for survivors, Lift the Burden. Flashbacks are used sparingly and they avoid any sensationalism whatsoever. Each looks and feels like a lamb being led to slaughter by an eerily calm and trusted wolf.
Alexandre’s letter writing campaign to the Catholic church kicks off “By the Grace of God,” and Ozon allows several of his letters, and the church members’ responses, to be read on the soundtrack. Alexandre interacts with the church psychologist, Régine Maire (Martine Erhel), who serves as a go-between for Alexandre, Preynat and the Cardinal of Lyon, Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret). It’s odd that the church provided a therapist for situations like this. Though Maire’s intentions seem sincere, her involvement reeks of conflicts of interest. Though he has waited until he was 40 to face his trauma (and he tells his six children about it with a refreshing lack of shame), Alexandre believes the church that nurtured his sense of right and wrong will offer him some closure.
Surprisingly, both Maire and the Cardinal agree that Father Preynat should meet with Alexandre. Even more surprisingly, the priest immediately admits that he abused Alexandre. Verley plays this scene with a mix of arrogance and nonchalance; he says he has always been attracted to young boys as if he were describing something normal. Preynat offers no apology and no request for forgiveness, the latter of which Barbarin and Maire assumed he would ask. Instead, he tells Alexandre that he informed the church of his predilections many times, yet they did nothing. The church then promises Alexandre that Preynat is no longer around children, but he sees numerous pictures in news articles that prove otherwise. Even worse, Barbarin accidentally lets slip that he’s glad the statute of limitations is up for many of the adults now coming forward. Alexandre contacts the chief of police to start an investigation.
When it appears that nothing will be done, Ozon leaves Alexandre’s story for a while to focus on Francois. The chief of police contacts him because his mother had kept all the correspondences she had with Barbarin after Francois told her Father Preynat kissed him. Francois has moved on with his life, his atheism the possible result of his horrific experiences. The police involvement brings the bad memories back, leading him to action. When Francois starts an organization for those molested by clergy called Lift the Burden, many survivors flood his website and hotline with stories of abuse. Again, the church’s reaction is a strange combination of concern and ominous self-protection.
After witnessing Alexandre’s unshakable faith and Francois’ more vengeful attitude, “By the Grace of God” introduces Emmanuel, a man for whom bad news can produce seizures. Emmanuel has suffered the most of the three men; he is in a toxic relationship with another abuse survivor and Father Preynat’s sexual assaults have left him permanently disfigured. Arlaud gives a haunting performance—a scene with his estranged father telling him to get over being assaulted is almost too brutal to watch. Similarly tense scenes play out between Francois and the brother who reveals he felt his own childhood had been ruined by his parents’ quest for justice.
By the time we return to Alexandre, who has now joined forces with Francois and Emmanuel, “By the Grace of God” has drawn clear parallels between how the three men cope with their shared experience. It also relentlessly yet quietly exposes the hypocrisy of church officials like Cardinal Barbarin and many of his higher ups. Barbarin becomes a squirmy symbol of a spokesman for his benefactors, offering platitudes about forgiveness while staunchly refusing to even acknowledge the damage his actions and those of others have caused. The film seems to ask why a man who admitted to raping little boys would still be allowed to mentor them unsupervised. Ozon’s tone is more sobering than angry, and it makes the film hit the viewer much harder as a result.
Melvil Poupaud as Alexandre Guérin
Denis Ménochet as François Debord
Swann Arlaud as Emmanuel Thomassin
Éric Caravaca as Gilles Perret
François Marthouret as Cardinal Barbarin
Bernard Verley as Bernard Preynat
Josiane Balasko as Irène