If the idea of yet another film about the devastatingly rampant child sex abuse scandals plaguing the Catholic church sounds about as enticing as a root canal, consider the fact that this one is from prolific French filmmaker François Ozon (Frantz, 8 Women), who delves into this heartbreaking subject with grace and care.
A film so steeped in current events that an epilogue confirms the whole ordeal remains in French courts today, By the Grace of God follows the very true stories of now grown men, with families, careers and responsibilities of their own, as they reckon with the abuse they suffered at the hands of a priest who had never been brought to justice.
A devout man who sends his five children to Catholic school, Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud) is understandably troubled to learn that the priest who abused him as a boy is not only still an active member of the clergy but works with children directly. Facing his own past means dredging up very scary, very painful memories, so it’s understandable that he starts by opening up a dialogue via letters to the local diocese. Cinematically speaking, a written correspondence isn’t exactly riveting stuff. And yet, Ozon manages to make it compelling, a sort of slow burn that eventually boils over as it becomes clear to Alexandre that much like elsewhere in the world, France’s Catholic Church has no interest in truly righting these reprehensible wrongs.
In order to force the Church into action, Alexandre determines he’ll have to convince other victims to speak up, which sets in motion one of the more interesting choices in By the Grace of God. Ozon wrote the film in addition to directing it, and to illustrate the collective nature of the action taken by the priest’s dozens of victims, the film’s focus shifts to François (Denis Ménochet), Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud) and others struggling in their own ways with what happened to them and how to cope with it. A father and husband who’s mostly put it all behind him, François gets by as an atheist, completely denouncing the Catholic Church and any religion at all. Emmanuel is the most tragic among a heartbreaking lot, a man completely crushed by the abuse he suffered, any promise or potential in his life snuffed out long ago by a despicable pedophile.
If the first half of By the Grace of God is about the men making the difficult decision to come forward as victims and all that comes with that, the second half seamlessly segues over to the newly galvanized group and their determination to see the priest and the Church held accountable. House meetings turn into brainstorming sessions about how best to bring both down; as attention on their case increases, Alexandre, François and the others hold press conferences and appear on news shows to tell their stories. Gone is the shame of victimhood or the stigma of having been abused. These are men on a mission, and they’re committed to seeing it through to the end.
That the entire film is based in fact, built around an actual, ongoing scandal in France (where a Cardinal was recently convicted for covering up the abuse) makes the whole thing that much more devastating. Each of these actors (Arlaud chief among them) clearly understands the gravity and significance of their depictions, their performances that much more impactful for it. And as an artist and a French citizen (and, you know, a decent human being), Ozon is to be commended for using his platform to further expose ongoing scandals that will only end when there’s no where left to hide.
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