2015’s Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight” focused on the Boston Globe journalists who exposed a coverup by the Catholic Church of sexual abuse by pedophile priests in the Boston archdiocese. The newspaper team won a Pulitzer prize for their investigative report of the 2001 clerical abuse.
“By the Grace of God” can be viewed as the French equivalent of “Spotlight” from audacious director François Ozon, who tackles the real-life scandal surrounding Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon who stands accused of covering up the abuse of more than 70 children by defrocked Catholic Priest Bernard Preynat.
Hollywood A-listers, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams may be missing but the performances by French actors Denis Ménochet, Swann Arlaud and Melvil Poupaud are some of the best performances you’ll see in any film this year. Powerful.
The media seems to be MIA in FOzon’s film, a complete 180 of Tom McCarthy’s Best Picture-winning “Spotlight.” Here, it’s up to the victims of pastoral abuse to expose the Catholic Church cover up and this is their story.
Ozon met with the victims whose stories are the basis for “Grace,” and since this is an ongoing legal case in France, Preynat, who is scheduled to be tried next year for sexual violence, and church volunteer Régine Maire, who was recently found not guilty for her role in the scandal, both sued to stop the film’s release. Since the information was already made public, the judges ruled in favor of the filmmakers.
Melvil Poupaud plays Alexandre, a family man with five children and still a devout Catholic after being abused by Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley) 30 years ago while in the Boy Scouts. As Alexandre’s two oldest boys prepare for their confirmation, he decides to come forward and report Preynat’s abuse to church officials when he discovers the priest (now in his 70s) is still working with children. After suffering in silence for three decades Alexandre comes forward in the hopes of sparing any more boys from suffering under Preynat.
Poupaud’s reserved performance demonstrates how difficult it was for Alexandre to come forward with the accusations. In one compelling scene, Alexandre comes face to face with his monster as church volunteer Régine Maire (Martine Erhel) mediates a private meeting between Alexandre and Preynat. It’s tense and one of Poupaud’s best scenes as he fights to hold back the tears.
Alexandre along with fellow victim Gilles (Eric Caravaca) create the “Lift the Burden of Silence” website to allow other victims to come forward and share their stories. That’s where Ozon read their stories and decided to move forward with the film.
The second of the three men Ozon’s film is based on is François Debord, played with fervor by an excellent Denis Ménochet.
At first, he discounts the news from his mother (Helene Vincent) that Preynat is under investigation, unwilling to open old wounds. But when he finds out the accused priest is still working with children, the former victim, now officially an atheist, becomes angry and takes a leadership role in the movement to bring Preynat and his supervisor Cardinal Philippe Barbarin (François Marthouret), who knew about Preynat’s abuse but did nothing about it, to justice.
While Francois and Alexandre have moved on with their lives, Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud) has not. The film’s third central character is frail and suffers from seizures brought on by the trauma he suffered under Preynat as a child in the Boy Scouts. Arlaud’s sensitive performance keeps the film balanced to show different perspectives from each of the three victims with a common thread but who were affected quite differently by the sexual abuse.
When first reading about the case, Ozon was interested in making a documentary, especially after meeting with the victims and their families but since many of them had already been interviewed by various media outlets, the director changed his mind when he discovered they were hoping for a film in the spirit of “Spotlight” to help tell their story. While this is not a documentary, Ozon wanted to remain as factual as possible so much of the dialogue in the film was spoken or written by the real individuals the film is based on.
“By the Grace of God” is engrossing and the cast is superb. By taking the victims’ perspective, the film evokes empathy more so than its Hollywood counterpart. Ozon does an excellent job of telling these victims’ stories without sensationalism or the need to put the Catholic religion on blast.
In the film, when asked about coming forward with the allegations against Father Preynat, devout Catholic Alexandre admits, “I’m doing this for the Church, not against it.”