By the Grace of God，written and directed by Francois Ozon. Starring Melvil Poupaud and Denis Menochet. France, 137 minutes, IIB. In cinemas now. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
Fans of cheeky French sensualist Francois Ozon should steel themselves for some disappointment. His latest film, By the Grace of God, bears none of his hallmarks. The twisty Hitchcockian narratives, the sneaky, subversive comedy and the easy, entirely adult sexuality that were woven into modern gems like Double Lover or his international breakout 8 Women are absent here, and rightly so. Ozon has opted to tackle France’s ongoing Catholic church scandal that is seeing one of its long-serving priests on civil and canonical trial. Colluding clergy who entered a conspiracy of non-disclosure went on trial in January.
By the Grace of God is, for the most part, a procedural drama about four men who go public with details about the abuse they suffered as kids at a Catholic scout camp at the hands of a priest. It’s now a sadly familiar story. Spotlight won an Oscar in 2015 for chronicling a newspaper investigation into church misconduct. Netflix’s documentary series The Keepers prompted the Archdiocese of Baltimore to go on the denial offensive. The Boys of St. Vincent, a 1992 mini-series about abuse at a Newfoundland orphanage, ended up before Canada’s Supreme Court when Catholic priests tried to stop it being broadcast. The Catholic church also tried to stall the French release of Grace in February.
The tie that binds these films is the demonstration of the church’s continued denial of child abuse even in the light of public information and heavily researched cinema. It is in this no-man’s-land between the Vatican’s purported zero-tolerance policy and actual action that Ozon sets Grace.
The saga begins with Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud) starting his day like any other, with his wife and five children. A successful businessman in Lyon, Alexandre finds himself trying to reconcile his Catholicism and his sons’ coming confirmation with the discovery that a priest who molested him as a child, Father Preynat (Bernard Verley), has returned to the city and is still working with children. He begins a correspondence with the Archbishop of Lyon, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin (Francois Marthouret), about getting Preynat dismissed. (Barbarin was found guilty in a French court in March of failing to report child abuse allegations).
Alexandre’s demands of the Archdiocese ultimately go nowhere, but they do pique the interest — and ire — of Francois (Denis Menochet), who was also abused by Preynat. Francois is furious, and files formal charges. After a third man, Gilles (Eric Caravaca), comes forward, they start web-based action to find more victims, hoping some will fall within the statute of limitations and can make criminal charges stick. The final member of the quartet is the troubled, damaged Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud).
Simultaneously angry and dispassionate, By the Grace of God manages a propulsive narrative that highlights the invisible connections linking us to the abuse, balancing this with a creeping understanding of just how complex it is to reckon with this particular crime. Alexandre values his faith, while Francois has nothing but contempt for it. When parents ask, “It was 30 years ago, why dredge it up now?” it’s easy to see why the boys “just didn’t tell someone”. Ozon may not be the obvious choice to make a film like Grace, but with his characteristic focus on the personal, he’s the right one.
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