It’s no surprise that François Ozon’s By the Grace of God is being compared to Spotlight, the Oscar-winning film about the uncovering of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Boston. Like Spotlight, Ozon’s film re-enacts a high-profile abuse scandal involving numerous victims and failures on the part of the Church hierarchy to deal with them appropriately – this time in the Archdiocese of Lyon. However, there is a crucial difference between this new French picture and its American counterpart. The latter was, in the main, the story of a group of journalists on the trail of a huge scoop. By the Grace of God is focused firmly on the abuse victims.
In March, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the Archbishop of Lyon, received a suspended sentence for failing to report allegations made against Fr Bernard Preynat, a priest who continued working with children even after he faced accusations of molesting young boys throughout the 1980s and early 90s. The cardinal is appealing his sentence, while Preynat was found guilty of abuse by an ecclesiastical court in July and dismissed from the clerical state. He is now is awaiting his own civil trial.
Preynat was brought to justice and proceedings were launched against Cardinal Barbarin only after pressure was put on French authorities by a group of victims who worked together to expose the abuse they had suffered. The film brings three of their number to the fore: Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupaud), a well-off banker, family man and faithful Catholic; François Debord (Denis Ménochet), a media-savvy atheist; and Emmanuel Thomasin (Swann Arlaud), a troubled former child prodigy.
In the past, Ozon has opted for tricksy plots, but here he keeps his storytelling straightforward and sober, albeit finding room for some elegant innovation, with the narrative baton passing from one main character to another. Alexandre, François and Emmanuel are each given their own chapters, and by switching protagonists Ozon gives us an idea of the breadth of Preynat’s crimes and the variety of devastation he caused his victims and their families.
Throughout, the ghastly nature of the abuse is not shied away from, both in how it is described by the characters and in the sinister hints conveyed through flashbacks. Despite shards of black humour, this is an angry film. Ozon is clearly raging on behalf of the victims.
It’s too long and the dramatic tension sags as the story unfolds, but this is still an important work by a virtuoso film-maker. Questions and challenges spill out from the screen, for Church leaders in Lyon, for Pope Francis and the Vatican, and indeed for the faithful at large.
The “ripped from the headlines” nature of the story adds to the sense of urgency. For many Catholics, By the Grace of God will be unsettling viewing. It should be.