French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin (right) was found guilty of covering up child sexual abuse by a priest in his diocese
French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin
Cardinal Philippe Barbarin pictured with Pope Francis earlier this year in March, 2019
Director François Ozon
(From left) Melvil Poupaud, director François Ozon, and Bernard Verley on the set of By the Grace of God
Director François Ozon (left) and actor Francois Marthouret on the set
Ozon (left) and actor Melvil Poupard
BY THE GRACE OF GOD (Grâce à Dieu) B
France Belgium (135 mi) 2019 d: François Ozon
A mischievous, openly gay filmmaker known for his eclectic styles, with a flair for misdirection and exaggerated melodramas, playful sexual comedies, identity issues, and an outright contempt for bourgeois families, Ozon displays a tendency to integrate fantasy sequences which are indistinguishable from reality, which leave the viewer guessing what really happened, leaving his films open to interpretation. While he may have been more experimental early in his career, he’s always maintained an enfant terrible status by being an agent provocateur, never afraid of tackling taboo subjects and broadsiding the public, provoking the masses with satiric stabs at whatever is deemed politically correct. Yet Ozon has become the new mainstream, suddenly elevated to a new respectability as a longstanding gay filmmaker who has been unashamedly bold in challenging stereotypical views on gay and straight relationships, offering subversive alternatives for decades as the maker of Potiche (2010), In the House (Dans La Maison) (2012), Young & Beautiful (Jeune & Jolie) (2013), The New Girlfriend (Une nouvelle amie) (2014), or Frantz (2016). Having viewed nearly all of his feature films, this is easily his most mainstream and conventional effort, yet with good reason, dramatizing real-world events, where the story presented has not yet resolved itself, taken straight from the newspaper headlines, basically the French version of the American film Spotlight (2015), highlighting pedophilia sex abuse accusations by a Catholic priest, the real-life Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), while also addressing the role of real-life Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon (François Marthouret) who is accused of concealing the priest’s conduct for decades, often reassigning him to other churches, yet he still managed to retain his status as a priest performing his church duties in the presence of unsuspecting children, all told from the point of view of several of the adult survivors who are aghast that this is still happening long after their traumatic childhood experiences. While there were attempts to prevent the film’s release at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2019, where it won a Silver Bear (2nd place) Grand Prize Award, the court ruled that the accused priest had already pleaded guilty, though the Cardinal’s case is still playing out in the courts.
While Ozon makes films like a short story writer, as most are unusually concise, usually written by himself, offering bizarre twists, venturing into farce, horror, comedy, or the psychosexual, even the supernatural, where some of his best work has involved psychologically probing films about women, UNDER THE SAND (2000), 8 WOMEN (2002), SWIMMING POOL (2003), or ANGEL (2007), much like Almodóvar, making only one film that similarly explores the male psyche, TIME TO LEAVE (2005), featuring Melvil Poupard as a man facing his own mortality, suffering from a terminal illness. Poupard returns again here as a heavily conflicted man who set the wheels in motion, Alexandre Guérin, now in his 40’s, living a comfortable life in Lyon, married with five children, coming from the respectable middle class, with a prestigious position in the banking industry, yet he is appalled to see Father Bernard Preynat, the same priest he believed was tried, convicted, and defrocked for sexually abusing him from the ages of 9 to 12 when he attended Catholic Scout Camp, is still actively teaching children in Lyon, fully sanctioned by the church and protected by Cardinal Philippe Barbarin. As his own children are approaching adolescence, wanting to protect them, he starts a series of targeted letters to the church which are read out loud, as well as the responses, starting with the Cardinal, who refers him to a church psychologist, Régine Maire (Martine Erhel), who acts as a go-between for Alexandre, Preynat, and the Cardinal of Lyon, who eventually arranges a face to face meeting with the accused priest. And while Preynat openly admits his crimes, he refuses to do so publicly, and more curiously, fails to ask for forgiveness, which was the underlying church motive for arranging the meeting. Having spent years overcoming the psychological damage, now with the full support of his wife Marie (Aurélia Petit), Alexandre openly shares what happened with his children, still embracing the teachings of the church, hoping his example will help teach his children not to remain silent in the face of criminal behavior. His own parents, however, wonder why he’s bringing this up all over again, thinking nothing good will come of it, fearing they will be socially ostracized from the church in a predominately Catholic country.
Much of this happened before the Cardinal obtained his position, professing outrage at the heinously sinful acts, promising to rectify all wrongs, yet he does nothing, sweeping it all under a rug, where throughout the centuries the church has never supported the victims, yet always managed to protect the priests, claiming their central concern has always been to maintain the central religious tenets of the church, yet their moral hypocrisy on this issue is hugely disconcerting. The church, however, seems to be changing its stance on the scourge of pedophilia and the silence hanging over it, with Pope Francis calling it “one of the most vile and harmful crimes” in existence. Ozon based his story on several members of the survivors’ group, La Parole Liberée, which has collected the testimonies of more than 85 people who claim to have been abused by Preynat in Lyon. The film breaks it down to three different men, each one attending the same Catholic Scout Camp, where over the years Preynat had his pickings of whatever child interested him, singling them out, then retreating into private quarters separate and apart from the rest of the campers, but this behavior is consistent throughout his priesthood. Flashback sequences are sparingly used to accentuate not just how it happened, but includes the looks on the faces of all the other kids who sat silently and watched, ultimately telling no one. When shooting for the film began, it was shot in secrecy, using an alternate title, including church facilities in Belgium to avoid arousing the suspicions of the French Catholic church. Initially Ozon thought to shoot a documentary, but found the actual stories told by survivors to be so compelling that he decided to condense them all into three different men in one film. The film itself is surprisingly evenhanded, shown with a sense of restraint and control, more sobering than angry, using meticulously researched detail for the actual chain of events, yet the overall performances are exceptional, not just emotionally revealing, featuring characters eerily haunted by the damaging circumstances.
The story moves to François Debord, an outspoken atheist, played by the highly assertive Denis Ménochet, so menacing as the abusive father in 2017 Top Ten List #7 Custody (Jusqu'à la garde), who starts a website and begins publicizing stories, forming a victims support group, eventually passing the baton to Emmanuel Thomassin (Swann Arlaud), easily the most damaged of the group, fighting drug addiction, joblessness, and the life of an outsider, with a near genius IQ, where bad news triggers epileptic seizures, where in his case the abuse was so pervasive it left him permanently disfigured, never really accepted anywhere until he discovers the support group. Among the underlying layers expressed in the film are the toxic family reactions, haunted by the shame, often blaming the victim, with Emmanuel’s father cruelly telling him to just get over it, or a nasty scene between François and his brother, claiming all the attention led to a kind of favored status of the victim, jealous that his own childhood had been ruined by the revelations, still believing his brother is obsessed with seeking attention. These incidents remind viewers of the kind of personal attacks that come with lifting the burden of silence, as powerful forces exist that continue to believe the less said the better. For the victims, however, initially feeling so powerless, all eventually finding each other, where they’re no longer alone with their shame, each one sharing the same horrible secret that seemed to eat away at their lives, always carrying a heavy burden which hasn’t exactly been lifted off their shoulders, but at least there’s more of them to carry that weight. The title comes from a 2016 press conference with Cardinal Barbarin who acknowledged that “the majority of cases, by the grace of God, are inadmissible,” as the statute of limitations had expired to file criminal charges against Preynat, inadvertently revealing a sigh of relief, thinking only of the church and not about the victims. The public furor over the events changed the laws in France, extending the time limits on the statute of limitations. Father Preynat, now 73, was found guilty of sex abuse to dozens of minors in the 70’s and 80’s, stripped of his position and defrocked by an ecclesiastical court, while Cardinal Barbarin was handed a six-month suspended sentence for not having removed Preynat from his parish despite repeated reports of misconduct, temporarily replaced until the appeal process has run its course.