'By the Grace of God' ('Grace a Dieu'): Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlinale
Melvil Poupaud, right, in 'By the Grace of God'
A measured, intelligent treatment of a festering issue that remains oddly unemotional.

Francois Ozon tackles the lingering silence and complicity of the Church in this ripped-from-the-headlines procedural drama about the child sexual abuse victims of a priest in Lyon.

It says a lot about the sensitivity of the Catholic Church in France to charges among its clergy of sexual assault on minors that efforts have been made to block the Feb. 20 domestic release of Francois Ozon's By the Grace of God. Given that the priest at the center of this fact-based drama awaits both civil and canonical trial, while a verdict is due in March on the non-disclosure of his offences by other members of the Catholic hierarchy, the film certainly has the power to influence public opinion. It's an admirably sober account of the often painful process for abuse victims of coming forward with testimony after living for 30 years or more with their painful secrets.

Their stories echo those of countless other countries around the world, where exposure of pedophilia scandals has shaken the public's trust in the Catholic Church, finally prompting the Vatican under Pope Francis to issue zero-tolerance statements. The gap between such statements and concrete action to remove the offenders is the gray zone into which Ozon digs.

This is a social justice film made with purposeful conviction and a quiet, never strident, sense of indignation. It's persuasively acted, elegantly shot, subtly scored and briskly edited to keep the dense, procedural action moving forward as the narrative baton is passed among three adult men who take the difficult step of speaking out about their boyhood experiences.

But it's also a movie that bears little resemblance to anything Ozon has done before, and therefore stands to disappoint his admirers. The Hitchcockian intrigue, playful sensuality and subversive humor that have been the director's signature don't get a look-in. The feeling arises throughout that this material would have been a more natural fit for a filmmaker like Laurent Cantet or Robin Campillo, both of whom have shown a facility for shaping nuanced drama out of reams of talk.

While Ozon opens with a stunning shot of his most morally ambiguous real-life character, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin (Francois Marthouret), the Archbishop of Lyon, surveying the city from its hilltop basilica, by most standards this is not a particularly cinematic film. It's generally too bluntly straightforward to acquire much psychological complexity, and its sparks of genuine conflict are limited to flare-ups within families that animate single scenes without contributing much to the overall momentum.

The rather dry impression is cemented early on by the epistolary information dump of extensive voiceovers relating correspondence between banking executive Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud) and Church officials, once he becomes aware that his childhood priest, Father Preynat (Bernard Verley), has returned to the region and continues to be involved in preteen Bible study programs. Preynat, who is now 70, regularly molested Alexandre over a three-year period when he was a boy scout.

A happily married father of five, Alexandre remains a devout Catholic, with his two eldest boys now approaching confirmation age. He reasons that by digging up his past ordeal, he is doing the Church a service, protecting other boys from harm and showing an example to his own children that they need never be afraid to speak out. His wife (Aurelia Petit) is 100 percent supportive, but the generational divide separating Catholic conservatives of a certain age is neatly illustrated at a family gathering when Alexandre's matronly mother scoffs, "It's been 30 years. He's a harmless old man," adding that his father thinks he's "great at stirring up shit."

Poupaud has a compelling economy of means as an actor, playing Alexandre's mix of fear and anger with great restraint. Ozon also keeps the tone free from melodrama when Alexandre gets to sit down and confront Preynat, with the diocese psychologist in charge of victim support, Regine Maire (Martine Erhel), sitting in on the encounter. Preynat attempts no denial. "It's a blot on my life," he says, admitting that his attraction to boys has always caused him pain. But nor does he ask forgiveness or acknowledge the far greater pain he has caused the children placed in his trust.

When Alexandre finally gets an audience with Cardinal Barbarin after much back-and-forth, he gets the official line about the Church's deep regrets, but follow-up is minimal, with Preynat still allowed to say Mass. That drives Alexandre to reach out through various channels to find other victims, ideally including those whose experience is recent enough to fall within the statute of limitations.

One of those men is Francois (Denis Menochet), who was 11 when he received the troubling attentions of Father Preynat; at first, the now-confirmed atheist dismisses it as "old news" when his mother (Helene Vincent) makes him aware of the legal case against the priest. But like Alexandre, Francois is shocked to learn that Preynat is still working with children. This fires him up to go public, talking to press and enlisting the help of fellow abuse victim Gilles (Eric Caravaca) to build a website called La Parole Libérée (known in English as "Lift the Burden of Silence"), designed to collect the testimony of others scarred by abuse as children within the Church.

The third and most vulnerable of the major characters on the victim side is Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), who has no job, is in a toxic relationship and is prone to violent seizures in moments of extreme anxiety. The fact that his entire life appears to have been stalled by his childhood trauma makes Emmanuel's story the most moving, and Arlaud has wrenching moments, though coming so late in the movie cramps his arc.

Ozon changes the family names of these characters but adheres to their factual accounts, also weaving in those of other men, some who refuse to get involved and take on the stigma of pedophilia victims and others who share their trauma only from the safe distance of a helpline. Tipping his hat to Spotlight both in press materials and on the screen, Ozon makes the abuse victims their own investigative journalists. The result is never less than absorbing, though the tone does become somewhat wearing and the narrative a tad repetitious at two hours-plus. It brings a welcome shot of electricity when Francois' older brother (Stephane Brel) explodes over a Christmas Eve dinner about his crusade sucking the oxygen out of the room and monopolizing the entire family's attention. More scenes like this would have brought a welcome disruptive force to a drama that's generally too staid and lacking in tonal variation.

The director's chief concession to narrative convention is brief flashbacks suggesting the main characters' encounters with Father Preynat as boys. These remain strictly within the boundaries of good taste, showing very little beyond a door closing or a tent flap being zipped. But that also means they lack impact. There's more of an emotional surge in shots of the adult Emmanuel's tense face under his motorcycle helmet, for instance. And even if it's understandable that Ozon feels the need to tread carefully around Barbarin — being a high-profile public figure whose culpability remains to be officially determined — the Cardinal's tactical evasiveness should have yielded juicier confrontations.

Early on in the section focusing on Alexandre, in particular, there are exquisite shots of cathedral interiors awash in ethereal light that hint at a larger exploration of the irreconcilable conflict between faith and human weakness. But By the Grace of God is closer to an investigative docu-drama, and on those terms it's effective if seldom deeply affecting.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Melvil Poupaud, Denis Menochet, Swann Arlaud, Eric Caravaca, Francois Marthouret, Bernard Verley, Martine Erhel, Josiane Balasko, Helene Vincent, Francois Chattot, Frederic Pierrot, Stephane Brel
Production companies: Mandarin Production, Foz, in association with Mars Films, France 2 Cinema, Playtime Productions, Scope Pictures
Director-screenwriter: Francois Ozon
Producers: Eric & Nicolas Altmayer
Director of photography: Manu Dacosse
Production designer: Emmanuelle Duplay
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Music: Evgueni & Sacha Galperine
Editor: Laure Gardette
Casting: David Bertrand, Anais Duran
Sales: Playtime

137 minutes