By the Grace of God

 

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A French director triumphs in a work outside his usual style.

 
By the Grace of God

   

In a year when the foreign language releases have largely fallen short, there is no doubt at all that the French offering By the Grace of God is, despite imperfections, one of the most impressive. It is an award-winning film which chooses to describe itself as a fiction based on known facts. Nevertheless, in telling the story of a paedophile Catholic priest, Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley) and of the churchman, Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret) accused of failing to act on what he knew, the film does not hesitate to use their real names. Shot on location in Lyon, By the Grace of God shows how grown men who had been abused by Preynat as young boys courageously decided to take action by bringing charges.

 

To tell the tale, the film adopts a rather unusual but effective structure in that in deciding to put three of these victims screen centre it makes each of them in turn the central figure. That person in the opening scenes is Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupard) and the film is at its strongest here. Guérin is portrayed as a man who, despite his experience with Preynat, has not lost his faith but who feels that something must be done to protect others when he learns that Preynat is still functioning as a priest and remains in contact with youngsters. What Guérin does leads to correspondence with the Cardinal and to an arranged meeting with Preynat and, in a move which avoids melodrama and sensationalism, this section plays out with the words of the correspondence being heard against images that build up the characters and the events but do not directly link to the writing or reading of the letters themselves. This gives the film an individual tone that is somewhat distanced but never distancing. Indeed, it’s an approach that conveys a strong sense of veracity.

 

When Guérin’s efforts lead only to promised actions that never materialise, a search is made to find other victims willing to testify and thus the focus falls next on François Debord (Denis Ménochet) and, later still on Emmanuel Thomassin (Swann Arlaud). With a supporting cast that also includes Aurélia Petit, Josiane Balasko and Hélène Vincent the quality of the acting is consistently high. It is in other areas that the film springs surprises, two in fact. The first resides in the fact that the style of filming, apt as it, gives no indication whatever that the writer/director is François Ozon. The second lies in Ozon’s decision to tackle this subject now. As it happens the film reaches us at a time when Preynat and Barbarin have again been in the news (Preynat has been defrocked and Barbarin has received a court sentence but appeals mean that matters are still open).  Nevertheless, as a subject for cinema, abuse in the Church is by no means new: 2015 yielded no less than two dramas (Spotlight and The Club) while documentarist Alex Gibney memorably gave us Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God as long ago as 2012. There is much stress in Ozon’s film on the fact that the French Statute of Limitations prevented such cases being brought after ten years had passed, but that period has now been extended to thirty years. However, a valuable element to be found in Ozon's film but not in its predecessors lies in the way in which the victims are shown to benefit from sharing their experiences and acting in concert.

 

I mentioned imperfection and the most serious lies in letting the film run for 138 minutes when the second half lacks sufficient key developments to justify that (there is a slightly self-conscious effort to add a touch of personal drama in the family responses to the stand taken by each of the three men - it works best in an episode concerning Guérin’s wife played by Petit). It is also the case that the occasional inclusion of flashbacks to the time of the abuse (always stopping short before the actual sexual acts) seems unnecessary. But these misjudgments are never serious enough to prevent By the Grace of God from making its mark. It may not look like an Ozon film but it nevertheless counts as one of his many successes.

 

Original title: Grâce à Dieu.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Melvil Poupaud, Denis Ménochet, Swann Arlaud, Eric Caravaca, François Marthouret, Bernard Verley, Aurélia Petit, Martine Erhel, Josiane Balasko, Hélène Vincent, François Chattot.

 

Dir François Ozon, Pro Eric Altmayer and Nicolas Altmayer, Screenplay François Ozon, Ph Manu Dacosse, Art Dir Emmanuelle Duplay, Ed Laure Gardette, Music Evgueni Galperine and Sacha Galperine, Costumes Pascaline Chavanne.

 

Mandarin Production/FOZ/Mars Films/France 2 Cinéma/Playtime/Scope Pictures-Curzon Artificial Eye.
138 mins. France/Belgium. 2018. Rel: 25 October 2019. Cert. 15.