One of the most anticipated films selected for the Competition strand, BY THE GRACE OF GOD (Grâce à Dieu) is an urgently needed wake-up call which reinvigorates the fight to expose sexual abuse within the Catholic church in France.
François Ozon turns from his run of twisted thrillers and suspenseful comedies to venture into the world of religion and paedophilia, drawing on true stories of abuse, rape and assault. The film introduces us to three men in Lyon, Alexandre, François and Emmanuel, all of whom suffered at the hands of the church as boys. The story follows their battle against a historical cover up of violence and exploitation.
Now aged 40, Alexandre has a loving family and on the surface, his life seems idealistic; but he is still struggling to come to terms with his past. After finding out that the priest who molested him is still alive and working with children, he makes the courageous decision to take action against his abuser, sparking the chance for other victims to step forward.
Other characters’ cases are more complex due to the time ban of the statute of limitations. Many of these acts took place pre-1991, which means they cannot be tried in court – this inspires an initiative to find more recent victims. All of them suffered abuse in the same church-led Scout group, often at remote camping trips across Europe. Alexandre’s story sets a precedent for the church’s response to these cases, especially as Alexandre is still devoted to the church and raising his children in the eyes of God. Even so, he’s not satisfied with forgiveness. François’ past is equally as devastating, but he makes the decision to go public and forms ‘La Parole Liberee’, an organisation which listens to and supports others who have been scarred by the assaults of clergymen. Emmanuel, who is declared a ‘zebra’ in terms of his advanced intelligence, demonstrates the extreme consequences abuse can have on a man’s career and relationships, and how difficult it can be to revisit suppressed memories.
The actors never seem forced into the expected stereotypes, but all equally and profoundly embody the roles with grit and unfaltering tenacity. What takes one aback is the candour and consistency in the dialogue and storyline; there is no sugar coating, and the arduous accounts of abuse are stripped bare and exposed to viewers. This is the reality of the horror the victims faced, this is the reminder they have branded on their lives forever; censorship of the details would be a disservice to their reality.
Ozon is careful not to visualise scenes of abuse, using instead the power of vocal testimonies as the men peel back their vulnerabilities. A historical cover-up is revealed across the institution, from the cardinals to the Vatican. It is Cardinal Barbarin who begins to seep out as the catalyst and scapegoat – as Preyant denies nothing, and yet Barbarin weaves a net of delays and evasions, maintaining a peculiar detachment to excuse himself of all hierarchal responsibility.
Something rooted deep into the core of the story is the way that abuse can have a domino effect on relationships with family members. Alexandre’s mother dismisses his case as an attempt to ‘stir up shit’, while Emmanuel’s mother offers to work on his helpline; her attempt at redemption for never having sought justice for her son. La Parole Liberee (Lift the Burden of Silence), is not just a self-help organisation but a space for men to be vulnerable, to cry and talk – and this is so necessary to help reconstruct traditional perceptions of masculinity. As Emmanuel experiences violent fits whenever the dark memories surface, and Alexandre collapses in tears after seeing Preyant, these moments on the big screen change our social narrative and encourage acceptance of men’s vulnerability. The women, wives and mothers featured in the story are also given the chance to reflect on their own painful experiences when supporting the men they love through the ordeal; there is solidarity and solace in community.
The film explores all aspects of religious ideology, and the conflicts of morality in a historical and contemporary context. In a beautifully subtle line at the end, Alexandre’s eldest son asks if he still believes in God, and his father responds simply with a thoughtful, pensive look; his eyes telling a whole story of their own, left open to our interpretation.
The film was inspired by the case of Father Bernard Preynat, who was charged in 2016 in Lyon with over 60 counts of sexual assault against minors. Barbarin’s trial is set to end on March 7th, and there are protests against the screening of BY THE GRACE OF GOD, especially in Lyon which still has a prevalent religious culture. It is of the utmost importance that this film is shared and talked about and screened, being an incredibly bold contender in the competition and tackling taboo subjects in a defiant claim for justice.