“A priest, a rabbi and an imam walk into a bar…,” a setup to many jokes heard worldwide. Sometimes, the jokes are funny. Other times they might be offensive, but you’ve heard at least one that somehow pertains to the priest being a pedophile. The sexual abuse scandals that have plagued the Catholic Church in recent years have become such commonplace knowledge that it has become a cliché. It’s easy to think that, while horrible in their own right, the issues are being dealt with swiftly and justly, that somehow the events of something like Spotlight brought much-needed attention to the subject so that it would finally be dealt with accordingly. But that assumption would be false. From the pedophilic priests to the bishops and cardinals who work tirelessly to cover up and dismiss such actions, the Catholic Church goes to great lengths to silence and stifle the claims, despite the widespread knowledge of pedophilia within the clergy. This is the world we enter into at the start of François Ozon’s By the Grace of God.
In June 2014, Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupaud) uncovers a repressed secret of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of priest Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley) when he discovers that there were others around him also suffering from the same abuse. In filing a formal complaint with the church, specifically in regards to Preynat still working with children in his own parish, Guérin discovers the nasty bureaucracy that infests the Catholic Church which serves to cover up and silence the voices of victims. The ensuing police investigation into the matter uncovers dozens of victims of Preynat’s abuse, including François Debord (Denis Ménochet) and Emmanuel Thomassin (Swann Arlaud), who form an organization dedicated to the publicity of their experiences in the hopes that it never happens to anyone again.
By the Grace of God wastes zero time in jumping directly into the graphic nature of child sexual abuse within the church, a move that is incredibly jarring to anyone expecting a slower first act. The film’s breakneck pace and unflinching attitude in staring the evil at hand dead in the face is the type of approach that makes a film like this so moving and engaging. It quickly becomes a film that you know you will only be able to watch once à la Boys Don’t Cry or Elephant (without the graphic violence of either, though). It’s necessary, but unpleasant, as Ozon forces the audience to look unflinchingly at evil and ponder all the times we’ve shrugged off injustice of any kind and the accountability that entails.
The story plays out in three rough, overlapping vignettes, a structure that allows the film to pace itself with a speed that could occasionally slow down to allow the audience to take in much of the emotional trauma being unloaded on screen but never once drags or feels sadistically played out. At 137 minutes, the audience spends all the time they’d want to with a story such as this one, even if the story does leave a few stones unturned by the end. Still, as an ongoing struggle, tying the story up in a neat bow might have been even more of a disservice.
That’s not to say that the film is so oppressive that there are no moments of levity, allowing the audience to breathe. The scenes are not lighter in the sense that there are laughs to be had, but in the way that they’re more tender moments of views into the victims’ family lives and relationships and the happiness that they found through the trauma. This leaves the film with a much more hopeful tone than you’d expect from a film about childhood sexual abuse, especially in its final act.
By the Grace of God is littered with fabulous performances throughout, but the trio of Melvil Poupaud, Denis Ménochet, and Swann Arlaud is unparalleled. Each gives the story a different perspective into the act of grief. Arlaud, however, steals every single scene he’s in with vulnerable brevity that typically isn’t granted to characters classified as “victims.” He has moments of weakness, but the desire for justice upon the discovery of the immense effect the abuse of a single priest has had on a community is something that propels the film’s final act into greatness. Arlaud doesn’t even show up until two-thirds of the way into the film, and yet, his quietly fiery performance will stick with audiences.
François Ozon’s repertoire of work has spanned the spectrum of light and dark over his long career, from slapstick comedies to dark dramas. By the Grace of God might just be his finest work to date. Ozon has crafted the film in a way that gives voices to the voiceless while respecting the stories they have to tell, regardless of how uncomfortable they might make viewers. It’s a grounded and restrained film for Ozon, but it’s also perhaps the one where he comes the most into his own as a storyteller extraordinaire. Less is more in By the Grace of God, and it’s the restrained hand behind the script and camera that lend to the success of the film.
It would be easy to write By the Grace of God off as another version of Spotlight or Deliver Us From Evil, but placing the tragedy that is child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in the context of how much more involved the church is in French society puts a strain on just how awful this entire scandal has become. Preynat, the priest detailed in the film, sought to stop the film’s release in France after its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, and ultimately failed due to his admission of guilt in the criminal acts. This in itself is enough of a resounding endorsement of the film and its message from the outset, but once you get into the tough material of the film itself, you discover something far more gentle and loving, even if the viewing leaves the audience affected long after the credits roll.
In select theaters beginning October 18th, 2019.
By the Grace of God also screens during Film Festival 919 at the following dates/times:
Saturday October 12, 2019: 1:10pm
Sunday October 13, 2019: 3:40pm
For tickets to either festival screening, go here.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.