BY THE GRACE OF GOD  (Grâce à Dieu)

(director/writer: François Ozon; cinematographer: Manu Dacosse; editor: Laure Gardette; music: Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine; cast: Melvil Poupaud (Alexandre), Denis Ménochet (François  Debord), Swann Arlaud (Emmanuel (Thomassin), Bernard Verley (Father Preyna), Eric Caravaca (Gilles Perret), François Marthouret (Cardinal Barbarin), Martine Erhel (Régine Maire), Josiane Balasko (Irène), Hélène Vincent (Odile Debord), François Chattot (Pierre Debord); Runtime: 137; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Eric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer; Music Box Films; 2018-France/Belgium-in French with English subtitles)

“The sensitive material of childhood abuse by the church, in a well-researched dramatization, is finely handled by French director-writer François Ozon.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Tom McCarthy’s Oscar-winning Spotlight (2015) focused on the efforts of reporters of the Boston Globe to expose the wide-spread cover up of abuses by American Catholic priests, while By The Grace Of God (Grâce A Dieu), also based on real events, tells the same kind of cover up story of abusive Catholic priests, but in France and from the vantage point of three brave men who struggle to tell their shameful experiences in this procedural courtroom drama.

The sensitive material of childhood abuse by the church, in a well-researched dramatization, is finely handled by the artistic French director-writer François Ozon (“Frantz”/”The New Girlfriend”) in a straightforward, low-key manner rather than in his usual florid style of filmmaking. At first planning to make it as a documentary, instead he made it into an intense and engrossing social justice drama that shows his revulsion of how easily the church fostered the cover up of the abusive priest despite knowing he was guilty. Ozon is an admirer of Alfred Hitchcock and shot the film in a style that invites comparisons to Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956).

The diocese of Lyon beginning in 2014 was faced with a pedophilia scandal when Father Preyna (Bernard Verley) was accused in the past of molesting at least three boys and that charges brought against him were dropped in a cover up by the Catholic Church back in the 1980s and early 1990s when parents first complained to the diocese to no avail. It’s pointed out that the haughty and evasive Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret), the superior in the diocese, had the audacity to keep the accused priest working in close contact with children despite knowing the priest’s guilt.

The first to speak out was the 40-year-old banking executive and devout Catholic from Lyons, Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupaud). He’s happily married to Marie (Aurélia Petit) and is a family man. He tells of being abused as a boy at a church Boy Scout camp and is saddened and angered to learn his abuser is unpunished and still working with children. Soon after he brings his story public he’s joined by two other victims of the priest, the hot-headed atheist François Marthouret (Denis Ménochet) and the youngest, a dysfunctional epileptic, Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), whose difficult life as a derelict may be attributed to his child abuse. The hurt men are willing to reveal all despite the pain of going public, but Alexandre is protective of the church while Marthouret wants revenge even if it means harm to the church.

Regine Maire (Martine Erhel), the diocese psychologist in charge of victim support, sits in on the encounter the church has with the accusers when Alexandre gets to sit down and confront Preynat. That the priest admits his guilt openly and the church still refuses to act is hurtful to the accuser and lets us know how misguided the church was in handling this crisis.

The three accusers are counseled by another victim, Gilles Perret (Eric Caravaca), a surgeon and leader of a self-help group La Parole Libérée (“Lift the Burden of Silence”), who demand the church bring justice and resolution to their priest problem and aim to make the church accountable for their inaction to the wrongs reported.

It’s an affecting and sober drama. Even if not delivered in the usual sublime cinematic way Ozon operates (whose dryness might disappoint his fans) it’s nevertheless heartfelt.

Preynat and other church figures unsuccessfully urged the courts to not release the picture because it would prejudice their right to a fair trial. “On 4 July 2019, an ecclesiastical tribunal of the Archdiocese of Lyon announced it had determined that Preynat was ‘guilty of criminal acts of a sexual character on minors younger than 16’ and applied its maximum penalty by defrocking him.”

François Ozon’s film was the Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear Grand Jury prize winner.