For François Ozon to make a topical clergy-drama after cultivating the moniker ‘monsieur extreme’ was quite an unexpected turn for the man behind films such as 8 Women and Young & Beautiful. Known for his erotic dramas, his move to a fact-driven contemporary film was met head-on and without teething problems, showcasing the undeniable range of the French satirist.
By The Grace of God examines the true and ongoing story of how a group of whistle-blowers and victims fought to expose the heinous past of Bernard Preynat, a Catholic priest whose abuse of minors was allowed to continue unpunished by the Archbishop of Lyon and wider Catholic system for years. We see the growing case against Preynat through the eyes of three of his 70-odd victims; Alexandre, a Catholic banker with five children, François, an atheist, and Emmanuel, a tormented jobseeker with a volatile girlfriend. As the statute of limitations has expired for sexual abuse cases, these three men – in amazing performances by Melvil Poupaud, Denis Ménochet and Swann Arlaud – scramble to find more recent victims, all the while fighting with the institutionally stubborn Church who refuse to defrock Preynat.
The varying effects of victimhood are closely examined by Ozon, who deftly tells the victim’s stories with due depth but without ever sensationalizing the tales. The victims of Preynat’s abuse all talk of how they initially were “proud” to have been chosen by the predatory priest, who “said I love you, in a kind voice.” The film seems to suggest that Preynat manipulated religious messages in order to have his wicked way, with lawful codes and religious codes being blurred in these young and impressionable boys. France is famously a secular country, yet the victims of Preynat’s abuse are at loggerheads with church officials over whether Preynat’s sanctions should be with the law or merely within the religious community. Indeed, religious officials seem short-sighted in the issue; one says that Preynat is not a pedophile “because look at the etymology – Preynat loves children,” whilst another worryingly seems to link pedophilia with homosexuality.
Ozon gives us both the wider picture and the minute daily struggles for the victims themselves, which is no mean feat when most narratives tend to focus on one over the other. Parents, brothers, lovers: these are all people affected by cases of abuse, and though some rally around the victim, sometimes people feel resentment, suffocation and anger at being pushed to the sidelines. By the Grace of God also interrogates how abuse affects people of varied faith and socioeconomic background; one victim, who lost his brother to suicide, is working menial jobs and suffering from alcoholism, does not feel like he is in a position to risk everything and dredge up his painful memories, which the resolutely middle class Alexandre fails to understand.
Dramatic organ music is woven in throughout, but never in a trite or overstated manner, maintaining a bleak aura of naturalism. Similarly, flashbacks concerning the predatory Preynat are often paired with imagery of fire and the colour red, but never in a cheesy or overdone way. The cinematography is subtle, precise and atmospheric. When Alexandre explains that he is “on a quest for light and truth,” this is in the face of “the church’s terrible obscurity,” with the church often shot in cold, shadowy tones when Preynat is present, with hushed voices ringing round the echoey church like forbidden secrets.
On occasion, the tone wobbled in the wrong direction. Preynat, a master abuser who attacked hundreds of young boys, was played so pathetically that on occasion the audience laughed at him. In an interesting look at the flexible postures in victimhood, Preynat’s insistence that he is a victim too – unto himself – is a notion met with disbelief by his accusers and disbelieving snorts in the audience. Some moments, however, are filled with black-comic relief, such as when one of the victims suggests hiring a plane and flying it over the Vatican with a “massive penis sign.”
Though certainly not the most original or daring feat ever seen, with By The Grace of God, Ozon creates a sensitive and poignant film that manages to examine so much, whilst always keeping a tight focus on the bravery of Preynat’s victims. Ultimately, the film seems to favour and reinforce the healing powers of confession, not Confession of the religious kind; though one victim’s insistence – that “I’m doing this for the church, not against it” – is truly telling.
Words by Steph Green