Film Review: “By the Grace of God” Empowers Abuse Survivors

Film poster: “By the Grace of God”

By the Grace of God (“Grâce à Dieu”) (François Ozon, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.

From director François Ozon (Frantz) comes a French take on the global pedophile crisis of the Catholic Church. A pointed procedural on how to confront immutable, immovable and self-protectively infallible bureaucracies, the movie offers a brutal, if quiet (people cry, but rarely scream) attack on those priests, bishops, and higher-ups who allowed the molestation of children to proceed without restraint for countless years. Even as it occasionally digresses from its main plot thread, By the Grace of God remains tightly focused on its central thesis, that the damage done in childhood can create a lifetime of pain, guilt and other manifestations of PTSD. Christ may have asked his followers to forgive, but we are far past that here. The only acceptable expiation of sin is prosecution.

Four men eventually emerge as primary protagonists in the fight against the Church, though we start with just one, Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud, Mad Love), a 40-year-old father of five whom we meet just after he has run into an old classmate who jogs his memory of past abuse at the hands of Father Preynat. When he discovers that the priest is now back in his hometown of Lyon, he writes to the local bishop, whose administrative assistant meets with him, listens sympathetically, and then sets up a meeting between Alexandre and his former tormentor. Though naturally restrained, Alexandre is increasingly horrified that nothing is being done, and starts seeking out others like him. The statute of limitations on his own case has expired, but perhaps someone else, younger, will testify.

Melvil Poupaud, Denis Ménochet and Eric Caravaca in BY THE GRACE OF GOD ©Music Box Films

We soon cut to parallel narratives, meeting, in order, François (Denis Ménochet, Custody), Gilles (Eric Caravaca, Lover for a Day) and, the most wounded of all, Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud, Goliath). Each, in his own way, seeks redress, though they do not always agree on methods. Though Father Preynat (Bernard Verley, Rodin) denies nothing, he also remains blissfully unaware of the severity of his crimes. Worse, so, too, do the administrators who long kept him in robes. Slowly, the wounded warriors build their case, attracting media attention and delivering evidence to the police. Though they may never achieve the catharsis they desire, their newfound camaraderie with others like them is a healing force, in and of itself.

At times frustratingly scattered in its plot construction (do we need so much time with Emmanuel’s failures after a few initial scenes to establish character?), the movie still packs an effective punch, however seemingly soft its landing. Life goes on, and survivors need not feast on the bones of their enemies to claim a victory (of sorts). That they are able to come together, bond and reclaim their future is triumph enough. The Church’s real reckoning, however, is still to come.

Swann Arlaud in BY THE GRACE OF GOD ©Music Box Films

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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