François Ozon’s latest work is a sombre, sobering exploration of the systematic child abuse prevalent in the Catholic church in France, and their ensuing cover-up efforts.
The film tells the true story of multiple men who were assaulted by Father Bernard Preynat as boys, and how they end up getting caught in a movement that sought to make the church acknowledge his abuse and stop shielding him from further punishment, which allowed him to continue working with children into his old age. It does so without any airs and graces, portraying these men’s journeys in as realistic a manner as possible.
The film devotes time to telling each of their stories, first separately, and later on together as the pressure on the church increased. Though they all come from different backgrounds, have different living situations and different levels of continued belief in the church, it becomes clear that the film is bringing them together in their condemnation of the church’s handling of Preynat. It does this job very well, showing that people from different walks of life can come together and challenge an institution that powerful.
But the story isn’t told in a contrite or clichéd way or made falsely triumphant. Ozon portrays the battle each character goes through, whether it’s a struggle of faith or to fully come to terms with what happened to them as children. It doesn’t shy away from that or cast judgment on its characters for taking the time they needed to be able to testify. Nor is it keen to overly dramatise events or provide rousing moments of triumph that didn’t exist.
All this is a departure for Ozon, who relishes in concocting feeling through cinema, and revels in the art of thrilling an audience in so much of his work. Here those feelings aren’t concocted, they arise naturally through dialogue that feels as if it was extracted from real life, rather than written for drama. It’s an example of how versatile he can be as a writer-director, as well as how much respect he has for the stories that are told here.
Praise must be given to the performances, which are universally excellent. Especially worthy of mention are the three main men of the story: Melvil Poupaud as Alexandre, a well-off, devout Catholic determined to make his church acknowledge Preynat’s actions, Denis Ménochet as François, a now-atheist whose journey towards helping find justice is more fraught, and Swann Arlaud as Emmanuel, who also has to struggle with the past and reconcile that with how his life progressed.
Each of them brings a subtle nuance to the role that is necessary when delivering such realistic dialogue. They feel real throughout, their reactions and decisions each reflecting their personalities and life experiences. Ozon has each of them act as the lead in the story for their own sections of the film, exploring how they come to terms with this effort to condemn the church’s treatment of them. It works brilliantly, allowing their characters to feel real, and their emotions to drive the film forward as they attempt to progress on this journey.
By the Grace of God definitely evokes Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s excellent film that explored a similar theme set in the USA, but it tells that tale in a much different way, though just as successfully. It is understated but powerful, its sincerity and quiet, brimming anger lending it a gravitas that another approach would not have had. Ozon continues to prove himself to be a filmmaker of many talents, and someone unafraid to try a different approach to do justice to a valuable story.
Dir: François Ozon
Scr: François Ozon
Cast: Melvil Poupaud, Denis Ménochet, Swann Arlaud, Éric Caravaca
Prd: Eric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer
DoP: Manuel Dacosse
Music: Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine
Runtime: 137 mins
By the Grace of God In Cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema 25th October.