By the Grace of God Review
It seems unlikely the Catholic Church will ever recover from the sexual abuse allegations that have plagued the institution for the past few decades. Attendance levels continue to fall and people's mistrust of those with organisational power - whether wearing a dog collar or not - feels like it's at an all-time high. The wanton abuse of power that destroyed thousands of childhoods has been reflected upon a number of times, and French writer-director Francois Ozon’s By the Grace of God is another to add to that list, in a film based on true accounts of child abuse within the French Catholic clergy.
Ozon's film was originally intended to be shot as a documentary, although his docudrama approach doesn’t feel vastly different. He gives power to the victims by constructing the narrative from the perspective of a trio of grown men investigating the crimes committed against them as children. Running for 135 minutes at a glacial pace, this will no doubt test the patience of some looking for a little more urgency. Which is not to say the film lacks dramatic verve, but it prefers to eschew sensationalism for grounded realism.
Starting in 2014, we are introduced to Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupaud), a devout Catholic, lawyer and father-of-five. He decides to address the sexual abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of Father Preynat (Bernard Verley) when he discovers the priest is still working with kids in nearby Lyon. Preynat wilfully admits to his paedophilic past when Alexandre attends a meeting intended to forge a path towards forgiveness. Alexandre wants the priest to be defrocked but is left frustrated by Cardinal Philippe Barbarin (Francois Marthouret) who continues to skirt around the problem.
Much of this entails extensive voiceovers detailing the letters/emails exchanged between the two which weighs heavily on the pacing. That extends into the introduction of a second main victim, François Debord (Denis Ménochet), who alerts the press and takes the case to the police. The case gathers momentum and more victims come forward, including Emmanuel Thomassin (Swann Arlaud), who has struggled to overcome his childhood ordeal and lived a far more turbulent life in comparison to the other men.
Ozon also highlights how it's not only the church who are angry that these ‘old stories’ are being dug up again. Some of the victim’s parents are equally as blasé and unwilling to deal with their own guilt after unintentionally exposing their sons to abuse, the thought of facing the past too painful to consider. On occasion Ozon introduces brief flashbacks to encounters between the priests and children, but these moments are staged with the safety lock switched on, rendering them ineffective and offering little insight that can’t already be gained by the more graphic recollections spoken by the men in the present day.
The comparisons to Spotlight are to be expected and Ozon understands it cannot be avoided given the subject matter and relatively short space of time between the two (he even places a poster of McCarthy's film in the background of one scene), although there are distinctions. For the most part the tone remains dry and DP Manuel Dacosse shoots without fuss, and while the performances all-round are fine it lacks the rigour of similar investigative dramas. There are fleeting moments of high-emotion but it’s a quiet and considered drama that goes about its business with disciplined order.
Finding an emotional connection to the story doesn’t prove easy due to distilled style employed by Ozon. By the Grace of God never plays the sentimental card and while the abuse suffered by the men is no doubt horrific, the details of their inner lives remain elusive. Those who know Ozon’s previous work will notice how different this is to anything he’s done before, but he’s rarely remained faithful to a singular form of filmmaking and although unspectacular, he methodically adds another string to his already considerably-sized bow.
By The Grace of God opens in select UK cinemas on October 25.