Film Review: By the Grace of God

Rating: 4

By Jason Solomons

François Ozon is one of France’s most popular and busiest directors. His films tend to do well here in England too, being what we want from our French movies: sexy, clever, elegant, witty, playful and poignant.

And so By the Grace of God marks a significant shift. Not that Ozon’s customary elegance isn’t to the fore but its subject matter is a new departure – a gripping, chilling procedural drama based on very recent real life which tells the story of a child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

It begins with a family man in Lyons, Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupaud), who sees an article in a local newspaper about a priest, Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), whom he thought he’d never see again. It triggers in him a memory of abuse when he was a boy, particularly when he was in the scouts, a movement which Preynat seems to have used as his particular hunting ground.

Guérin writes to Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret) and investigates why Preynat is still in positions where he’s in charge of children. It’s a slow case, and very little seems to be done about it, even after several emotional meetings where he confesses all to persons he believed are in authority. And it’s this silence that begins gnawing away at Guérin’s soul, his family and his professional life. 

There’s a telling little scene where he taps frantically at his keyboard, refusing to come out for a Sunday walk. His children ask: ‘What are you doing, Daddy?’ The obsessed Guérin responds, without looking up: ‘I’m writing to the Pope.’

As despair shakes Guérin to the point of paranoia, Ozon then widens his story to examine how Preynat’s re-emergence is affecting others. One man, François Debord (Denis Ménochet), is determined to dig deeper and starts a website for victims, persuading them to come forward to join him and to accuse Preynat. It’s not an easy task. Many accusations have passed the ‘statute of limitations’ (they happened too long ago to be brought to court), but many of the men are still scared – scared of what their families might think or what their neighbours, bosses or parents might say. 

However, one mother (played by the redoubtable actress Josiane Balasko) becomes a surprising ally and the movement grows, a grass-roots of people coming forward, traumatised adults now reliving a past of which they’d never spoken – or if they had, which was brushed away and ignored – slowly finding confidence and comfort in numbers.

The abuse has affected the men in very different ways – sexually, mentally, religiously. There are, we learn, a few who have taken their own lives or gone off the rails irreparably. But when the number of victims begins to mount there’s a very delicate sense of triumph.

Ozon, so often a director who puts the emotions of his female characters at the centre of his films, explores the fragility of the male psyche here as well as the corruption of an institution and the abuse of power. It’s a potent combination and a pleasure to see a film-maker known for his emotional empathy really harness his skills here.

It landed him in court in France after the Church tried to ban the film. But, this being France, artistic expression won out and the film reaches us as Ozon intended, using the real names of both the victims and of Preynat, who is now appealing to the Vatican against his defrocking.

It’s shocking stuff, but done with such tenderness and clarity that you’re always rooting for the characters, feeling their pain and frustrations. Anger is reserved toward the Church rather than God, but of course there’s a constant probing of the nature of religious faith, too. 

Ultimately, this beautifully controlled film becomes a search for meaning in the face of a ghastly betrayal. The thought of this pain and shame wrought on innocent children will surely bring any viewer to tears.