Movie Review: By the Grace of G-d (Grâce à Dieu)

It’s the scandal that the Catholic Church wishes would just go away but it doesn’t because the sexual abuse was too widespread, went on for far too long, and the leadership knew about it and did nothing to stop it. Put it behind you and move on, they tell the survivors but who is to say how long is too long? Unfortunately, it’s the courts that have that say and many of these perpetrators can’t go to jail because their crimes happened so long ago that they fall outside the statute of limitations. That’s where the Church needs to step up and say that abuse is intolerable no matter how long ago it happened. But even Pope Francis, in a speech he gave last February, rationalised that abuse happens in all sectors of society. Sadly, according to the Catholic Church, two wrongs seem to make a right.

In the French film, BY THE GRACE OF G-D, writer-director and Berlinale darling François Ozon (FRANTZ; DOUBLE LOVER) has turned his lens on events that are still unfolding in that country today. Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud, A SUMMER’S TALE) is a happily married father of five who lives in Lyon. When he learns that Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), the priest who sexually abused him years earlier when he was a boy scout, has returned to the city to work with children, he goes to Preynat’s superior, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, Archbishop of Lyon (François Marthouret), to get the man removed from his post. Barbarin, while sympathetic to Alexandre’s concerns, doesn’t budge though. It doesn’t take long for the news of Preynat’s return to get out and another abuse survivor, François (Denis Ménochet, MARY MAGDALENE; THE PROGRAM), decides to go public with his story. He creates a support group for abuse survivors, La Parole Liberée (Freed Speech), and finds many others – all men in their 30s and 40s – who want justice against the man who messed up their lives in different ways. For one of these men, Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud, BADEN BADEN), the pain is ongoing. Chronically unemployed and in a toxic relationship, he has epileptic seizures when the stress gets too much for him. Together, the men push the Catholic Church in France to do the right thing, though some of their family members would prefer to let the past stay in the past.

Although Ozon tweaked some of the names of the abuse survivors, the film follows events as reported in the French press quite closely. The director said that he hopes the film will provoke debate but, as the post-script title card appears on the screen, there is no doubt which side of the debate he falls on. Perhaps because of that, the lawyers for the real Father Preynat tried to block the film’s domestic release following Ozon’s Silver Bear win at the Berlinale last February, at least until the court case against Cardinal Barbarin is resolved, but the judge allowed the release to go forward, arguing that the priest had already pled guilty to abusing the boys.

While all the performances are convincing, Ozon doesn’t make Alexandre a very compelling character and spends too much time on his story arc before moving on to François. The film begins to hum with François front and center and then shifts to an even higher gear when Emmanuel, the most complex and most interesting of the three main protagonists, is introduced. But because he arrives so late in the film though, Ozon isn’t able to give his arc the time it deserves. The story might have been better served as a three-part TV mini-series instead of a movie.

Even so, BY THE GRACE OF G-D is a pretty good film about a very topical subject. Ozon’s fans might be surprised at how different it is from his previous, oft-times sensual, works but the director is nothing if not provocative. Check it out.

In March of this year, Cardinal Barbarin received a six-month suspended sentence for failing to report the sexual abuse allegations against Father Preynat to the law enforcement authorities. His lawyer has said that the cardinal will appeal. Although Pope Francis has declined to accept the cardinal’s resignation, Barbarin has decided to step aside for an indefinite period. Meanwhile, just days earlier, Australian Cardinal George Pell, was sentenced to six years in prison by a Melbourne court for the sexual abuse of two choirboys in the 1990s. He appeared in court again yesterday to launch his appeal against the conviction.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, June 7th at the special time of 9:30 am HK time because it’s Dragon Boat Day!

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