BY THE GRACE OF GOD (Grace a Dieu). Starring: Melvil Poupaud, Swann Arlaud, Denis Menochet, Bernard Verley, and Francois Marthouret. Directed by Francois Ozon. Rated M (Themes of sexual abuse, sexual references and coarse language). 138 min.
This sub-titled French-Belgian film focuses on three men who survived a Catholic Priest’s abuse of them as young boys. The film won the Jury Grand Prix at the 69th Berlin International Film Festival in 2019. The opening credits describe it as a “work of fiction based on known facts”.
The film is based on real events in Lyon, France, that are still under legal scrutiny. In July 2019, an ecclesiastical tribunal of the Archdiocese of Lyon announced that the priest was “guilty of criminal acts of a sexual character on minors younger than 16” and applied the maximum canonical penalty of removal of all rights to exercise the functions of his ordained ministry. The priest openly admitted to molesting many boys, and frequently so, while he was a priest.
Alexandre Guerin (Melvil Poupaud), Emmanuel Thomassin (Swann Arlaud), and Francois Debord (Denis Menochet) were victimised as children by Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley). When they reached adulthood, they discovered that the person who abused them as boys had been reassigned by the Church and was continuing with his duties, and working with young children.
Alexandre, a respected banker, and a committed Catholic, came to doubt his belief in God; Emmanuel was emotionally unstable and became subject to seizures; and Francois formally renounced his Faith and embraced atheism. The three of them formed the nucleus of a movement to force the Church “to face its silence and its complacency”. The main protagonist was Alexandre, married with five children who received sacraments until he saw that the offending priest was still active at Mass and was conducting confirmation. Open to his supportive family, he set about locating other survivors from the summer camps where his sexual abuse occurred.
The film is an absorbing account, in semi-documentary style, but employing actors, of three men who battled the Catholic Church over its code of silence about their sexual abuse decades earlier. The essential focus of the film is on the effects of trauma on survivors and their families. Each of the men still suffers the consequences of what happened. Father Preynat reported openly that he had “a problem with children”, but he was nevertheless given positions where he could not avoid children and subsequent abuse occurred, despite complaints. The three survivors raised their concerns with Cardinal Philippe Barbarin (Francois Marthouret) decades after the abuse occurred and the Church eventually took action. In 2016, Cardinal Barbarin gave a press conference in which he announced that the majority of cases ‘By the Grace of God’ were technically inadmissible. His appeal is ongoing.
The film does not preach vengeance for the wrongs it reveals. Family scenes are raw and intimate, and the film has been directed by Francois Ozon to stay close to the facts, making it a sharp and immensely incriminating account of a paedophile left by the Church to do what he wanted. The movie tells its story sombrely and intensely without sensationalism, and it offers a compassionate account of the felt-betrayal of adult survivors whose abuse was knowingly suppressed.
The film one compares this movie with is “Spotlight” (2016) which focused on the impact of terrible events on a team of journalists finding abuse. This film focuses almost exclusively on the suffering of victims. Both films engender anger that the Church did not do more about the sexual abuse occurring in its midst. Like “Spotlight”, it has searing images that have lasting impact, as when Alexandre is made to pray for forgiveness with his abuser, and where Emmanuel’s estranged father tells his son to “get over” his problem.
This is an absorbing, painful film. It dramatically shows the Catholic Church expressing concern at one level about sexual abuse by its clergy, while at at another level protecting itself against detection. Its relatively sober tone renders it a very hard hitting film about what the Church shamefully kept hidden.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released late November, 2019