By The Grace Of God

****1/2

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

By The Grace Of God
"Ozon does not smooth over the rough edges and the icy roads stay icy." | Photo: Jean-Claude Moireau

Whereas Tom McCarthy's Oscar-winning Spotlight focused on the journalistic tenaciousness of the reporters of the Boston Globe and its executive editor Marty Baron to expose the cover up of abuses by Catholic priests, By The Grace Of God (Grâce A Dieu), based on real events, takes on the challenge of telling the story of three men who struggle to bring their accounts forward.

François Ozon's Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear Grand Jury prize winner begins with Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud) living in Lyon. Happily married to Marie (Aurélia Petit), father of five, successful, he is the first to speak out about what happened to him as a boy at a church scout camp, after he discovers that the Catholic priest, Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley) still works with children.

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He is a devoted Catholic who is struggling to come to grips with memories from the past and his responsibility to bring them to those in charge of the church where he worships with his family.

Régine Maire (Martine Erhel) a volunteer assistant and psychologist mediates the first ill-advised meeting between the adult Alexandre and Preynat with chilling matter-of-factness, following a questionable by-the-book protocol that ends in a common prayer for the three of them. When confronted with the abuse, the priest denies nothing and the stunned Alexandre realises how everything had been out in the open all this time without consequence for the priest.

The diocese, headed by Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret), let Preynat continue to work with minors, despite his own assessment. The priest, even in the letters he wrote to parents, stated that he "had a problem with children" and the representatives of the church apparently knew about it. Both men and Régine Maire are mentioned by their real names in Ozon's film.

The silences between the words, which are based on court transcripts, also emphasise the convoluted logic of perpetrators presenting themselves as more of a victim than their victims.

Following Alexandre's journey, are those of François (Denis Ménochet), who will eventually become the founder of the association La Parole libérée, and Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), the youngest and most vulnerable of the three, who because of the statute of limitations at the time, plays an important part in bringing justice to the case.

Ozon does not smooth over the rough edges and the icy roads stay icy. Nor are the activists presented as saints. They quarrel and struggle with their colleagues and friends and their own families, who are always affected as well. There is a common bond that is formed between Alexandre, François and Emmanuel that helps to solidify their resolve in moving towards an acknowledgement of the changes that need to occur.

They are reluctant heroes, taking the risk to speak out, a step that once taken, cannot be undone. The flashbacks to the scout camping trips expose the patterns of abuse where "I love you," and "our secret" were the poisoned words that the same man used for decades with no one there to stop him.

The telling of three stories of three men in a row and leaving behind one for a while when the next story begins, until another one takes the narrative baton, works similar to the way how in ancient tales three brothers might venture out into the world to set things right.

Bernard Preynat, defrocked in real life after the release of By the Grace of God in France, is still awaiting trial in the criminal courts. Cardinal Barbarin was condemned and he is appealing the sentence. There are about 70 victims who spoke out about the abuse that happened over a period of three decades.

Reviewed on: 20 Oct 2019
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When Alexandre learns that the priest who abused him as a boy is still working with children, he and other victims take action against the perpetrator.


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