Film Review: ‘By the Grace of God’

François Ozon changes pace with an ambitious, urgently topical story from France's side of the Catholic Church abuse scandal.

François Ozon
Melvil Poupaud, Denis Ménochet, Swann Arlaud, Éric Caravaca

2 hours 17 minutes

There’s of-the-moment cinema and then there’s on-the-moment cinema, ripped so freshly from the headlines that the filmmaking still bears a few ink smudges. An engrossing, whole-hearted dramatization of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal behind the ongoing trial of Philippe Barbarin, the Archbishop of Lyon, François Ozon’s “By the Grace of God” doesn’t attempt to hide the in-progress nature of its narrative. It even concludes with a title card announcing that the verdict in Barbarin’s trial will be delivered on March 7, four weeks after the finished film’s Berlinale premiere; by the time many audiences get to see it, subsequent developments will have added different emotional hues to its onscreen ending.

That immediacy is both a virtue and a slight hindrance in a project that doesn’t play to Ozon’s usual strengths. Such a boon to his elegant genre pieces, his tricky, ahead-of-the-game authority as a storyteller isn’t much called for in “By the Grace of God,” and one can occasionally feel his more florid impulses as both a writer and a formal stylist straining against the plainspoken sobriety of his approach here. On the other hand, a sense of limbo — of indecision, even — is apt in what is first and foremost a compassionate study of victims facing their own suppressed stories. That’s an agonized internal process that no court verdict will wrap in a tidy bow in one’s month’s, or even many years’, time. Notwithstanding the relative restraint of its procedural format, “Grace” is sure to be a domestic sensation when it hits French screens on Feb. 20; global arthouse distributors will also embrace this French chapter of what is very much an international reckoning.

In the film’s press kit, Ozon gets ahead of inevitable comparisons by stating that the real-life victims he consulted — for a project previously envisioned as a documentary — “imagined a film in the spirit of ‘Spotlight.'” There’s certainly a common current of quiet fury running from Tom McCarthy’s ultra-disciplined Oscar winner to “Grace,” though if the latter is ultimately a little more expressive with it, that comes down to its direct interest in those who suffered at the Catholic Church’s hands, rather than the journalists handling their collective tragedy. Ozon’s conscientiously researched screenplay finds significant tonal variation within that remit, establishing distinct personalities and outlooks for the four semi-fictionalized men driving its narrative; as focus shifts from one to the next, the tenor of the filmmaking changes several times over the course of a hefty but consistently gripping 137 minutes.

“Grace” is at its most calmly terse upfront, in line with the buttoned-up demeanor of Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), a 40-year-old Lyon family man whose slick-suited exterior masks a world of unresolved, tamped-down trauma. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was one of many pre-teen boys sexually assaulted by local priest Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), who has remained active in the diocese despite assorted parental complaints. In 2014, unable to remain silent any longer, the still-devout Alexandre formally takes his case to Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret), who professes both concern and ignorance over Preynat’s crimes; once Alexandre’s inquiry kicks off a chain of similar testimonies from other men once under Preynat’s care, the cardinal’s position becomes harder to sustain.

The film’s first act unfolds in near-epistolary form, detailing the polite but fraught correspondence between Alexandre, the church and the police in cool, clipped voiceover. Proceedings are blown open, however, with the introduction of François (Denis Ménochet), a hot-headed atheist who wants to wreak more public damage on the church than the more circumspect Alexandre; as the two men’s shared pain but opposing ideologies bristle against each other, another victim, tactful surgeon Gilles (Éric Caravaca), acts as a kind of mediator. All three men’s anguish, however, is put into relief by that of Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), one of Preynat’s most serially exploited charges. Unlike his peers, the near-derelict Emmanuel has never managed to push past trauma to get his adult life on track; as the men form an activist union to “lift the burden of silence” on their abuse, he finally finds a place to belong.

This is muscular, moving material, rich with rhetorical possibilities and political fault lines, of the type you’d more intuitively assign to a debate-inclined auteur like Robin Campillo than a sensualist like Ozon. Another auteur might have probed differently into the fascinating spiritual conflicts on display, in what often amounts to a story of human empathy hitting a concrete wall of prescribed faith, though “Grace” still lands a couple of gut-punches in that regard: In one extraordinary scene, as Alexandre is awkwardly made to pray with the cardinal after spilling his grotesque story of the church’s betrayal, all the film’s angles of enquiry line up to searing effect.

That the film works as stirringly as it does is largely because of that brash, heart-on-sleeve engagement with its characters’ messy, unfinished feelings, not to mention Ozon’s canny knack for playing on French star personae. In a uniformly committed ensemble, Ménochet’s riveting bullishness as a performer perfectly balances Poupaud’s razor-cut delicacy at the opposite end of the spectrum; as a splintered snapshot of contemporary masculinity in varying forms of crisis, Ozon could hardly have cast “By the Grace of God” better. “We all have our problems,” says one victim’s staunchly Catholic father, still in callous denial as to the extent of his son’s life-rending trauma. It’s a stunningly insensitive response under the circumstances; as an encapsulation of male toxicity in the shifting landscape of 2019, however, it’s more true than the speaker could possibly know.

Film Review: 'By the Grace of God'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 8, 2019. Running time: 137 MIN. (Original title: "Grâce à Dieu")

Production: (France) A Mandarin Production, Foz presentation. (International sales: Playtime, France.) Producers: Eric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer.

Crew: Director, screenplay: François Ozon. Camera (color): Manu Dacosse. Editor: Laure Gardette. Music: Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine.

With: Melvil Poupaud, Denis Ménochet, Swann Arlaud, Éric Caravaca, François Marthouret, Bernard Verley, Martine Erhel, Josiane Balasko, Hélène Vincent, François Chattot.

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