By the Grace of God (2018)

FRANCOIS OZON

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

Original Title: Grâce à Dieu

/, 2018. , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Screenplay by François Ozon. Cinematography by . Produced by , . Music by , . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

A real-life case is fictionalized in this fascinating drama about the, what else is new, Catholic Church covering up the crimes of a pedophile priest in Lyons, France. It begins when successful banker and father of five Alexandre Guérin () is inspired to write to the Lyons diocese about his experiences as a pre-teen being molested by Father Preynat (), a priest who is decades later still working with children. The church responds with sensitivity and gives Guérin the opportunity to meet his abuser, a very difficult and dissatisfying experience for him: the priest admits his guilt, admits that he is mentally unable to escape his perversion and that he has many times in the past begged for the church for help that he has not received.

Guérin is dissatisfied with the church’s kind-hearted but ultimately unproductive response to his request to take Preynat away from the sphere of young people, and so pursues the matter in court, where it results in the police getting in touch with another of the same priest’s victims, François Debord (). He gets in touch with surgeon Gilles Perret (), who is also a survivor, and they form an association for people like themselves to encourage others to come forward, to raise money for their legal case and raise their profile in the media, where against police advice they take their case.

This brings them to the doorstep of Emmanuel Thomassin (, the film’s most moving performance), who is still marked by the trauma of his experiences with Father Preynat and who provides testimony that, unlike the other men in the same situation, is within the statute of limitations that has allowed the priest to stay home free so far.

Addressing the wrongs of their past works against their present circumstances, all these men have family lives that are affected in numerous ways by their increasing devotion to this cause, in some cases creating distance, in other cases inspiring guilt in parents who punish themselves for not having done more to protect their children in the past.

Delving into a lengthy drama on this ugly and unpleasant subject matter doesn’t sound like a fun night at the movies, but director Francois Ozon, working in docudrama for the first time, takes a Just the Facts approach and moves with a positive and optimistic energy through the many stages of the process and never allows any character to be reduced to a tragic stereotype. There’s a great deal of respect afforded to the ambivalence that these characters are suffering, sharing your traumatic experiences with the world is an act of bravery, but Ozon doesn’t equate doing the opposite with cowardice: when Guérin tries to encourage one reticent young man to testify for the sake of getting others to come forward, his passion turns him into something of a bully, and Debord thinks nothing of making his whole family live and breathe his pursuit of justice 24/7 despite the demands of their own lives. Ozon incorporates the dark side of the experience without judgment and reminds us that when you’re not the person to whom this has happened, telling people to share their story or get over it are both things that are very easy to pronounce from the cheap seats.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with one of the gems being a wonderful supporting turn by as Thomassin’s brokenhearted mother Irène, taking on the task of answering the newly formed association’s help line as a way to do penance for what she perceives are the sins of her past. This is a very disturbing film but it’s not a difficult one, its attempt to exorcize the demons of an old, stubborn institution is done with generosity and love, and the revelation that the greatest victories are marred by an inability to erase the pain of what has already passed feels intelligent and liberating.

Berlin Film Festival Award: Silver Bear – Grand Jury Prize

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