Sweeping yet intimate, and told with a classicist rigor, By the Grace of God isn’t just the most mature and elegant film from the international enfant terrible François Ozon. It’s also among the year’s most consequential and newsworthy movies, in which the recent events it dramatizes nip at the heels of history — and precedents — in the making.
In France in 2016, the then-adult victims of a pedophile priest in 1970s and 1980s banded together to form an organization, La parole libérée, to tell their stories, expose corruption in the Catholic Church, and campaign for justice. Borrowing from citizen journalism and community organizing, the survivors’ network quickly sent shock waves through the Catholic Church, leading to headlines that continue to reverberate as recently as this past summer.
Told, often, in a graceful, epistolary style, By the Grace of God follows three of the organization’s most influential members, tracing their evolutions from passive survivors to active advocates and, in some cases, believers to agnostics or atheists. Alexander Guerin (Melvil Poupaud) gets the ball rolling. A banking executive and father of five, when Alexandre discovers that Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), now a septuagenarian priest, is still working with children, he begins a relentless campaign of correspondence with the Church’s therapist (Martine Erhel) and his local cardinal (François Marthouret), writing with the urgency of a four-alarm fire. He even secures a face-to-face meeting with Preynat, who admits, in arresting candor, to the abuse, and to the nature of his disease — while arguing that “times were different.”
But when this confession, even when spoken in front of the therapist, yields no action within the Church, it doesn’t take long for Alexandre to discover that the rot of corruption extends well beyond one pedophile priest, metastasizing through the hierarchy of an institution in dire need of reform. Apologists like Cardinal Barbarin may wring their hands over child sex abuse, but when it comes to retribution, they stall, offering to pray for their victims instead of addressing inconvenient truths. Rather than address the cancer of priests such as Preynat, Church leaders simply shuffle the predator off to different dioceses — a practice familiar to viewers of Spotlight, whose powerfully fluid storytelling shares much in common with Ozon’s.
His pacing swift, his narrative presented with the studious judiciousness of a prosecutor laying out a case, Ozon’s talky but gripping picture quietly settles into a profound structure. After following Alexandre for the film’s initial third, he subtly shifts gears to the scandal’s next major player, Francois Debord (Denis Menochet), whose evolution is the starkest. Discovered by the police thanks to correspondence sent from his parents to Father Preynat at the time of his abuse, Francois initially rebuffs the investigators’ inquiries, wary of uncovering his traumatic past. Convinced to change his mind, it isn’t long until he becomes the vocal leader of La parole libérée, energizing survivors through social media and garnering national press attention for the organization.
Then, just as unexpectedly, for its final third, Ozon cuts away to Emmanuel Thomassin (Swann Arlaud), the movie’s most damaged survivor — a jobless epileptic in a toxic relationship with a jealous girlfriend — whose discovery of La parole libérée may literally be life-saving.
Part of Ozon’s genius lies in co-opting biblical tenets to critique the Church: By the Grace of God is a bona fide David and Goliath tale, with the Church’s protectionist obstructionists signifying, tragically, the villain in the myth. Moreover, his movie is structured as a triptych, subtly playing off the Holy Trinity, the Easter Triduum and the many repetitions of “three” in the holy text. As in the religious films of Martin Scorsese, Christendom feels rooted in the DNA of By the Grace of God, even when it views its institutions with a jaundiced eye.
News of the activists’ case has broken since the release of this movie; Google “Bernard Preynat” and see for yourself. But the damage wrought by the priest and his protectors extends well beyond his future in the Church, to matters spiritual and metaphysical. At the end, Ozon circles back to Alexandre, who is asked by one of his eldest sons, “Do you still believe in God?” Ozon lingers on Alexandre’s face for a beat, and for once, in this dialogue-driven film, the silence is deafening.
BY THE GRACE OF GOD. Director: François Ozon; Cast: Melvil Poupaud, Denis Menochet, Swann Arlaud, Eric Caravaca, Francois Marthouret, Bernard Verley;
Not rated; in French with English subtitles; Music Box Films; Now playing at Living Room Theaters at FAU and Coral Gables Art Cinema