By the Grace of God: A nuanced examination of the horrors of child abuse and the church’s culpability
Is it possible for a prolific filmmaker to continually demonstrate versatility? Maybe not if the director is Woody Allen, but it’s definitely a yes in the case of French director François Ozon. Try watching the 2002 all-singing, all-dancing murder mystery melodrama 8 Women with Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert, followed by his 18th film, By the Grace of God, which is competing for the main prize at this year’s Berlinale.
Ozon deploys voiceovers with considerable efficiency, and sidestepping the possibility of standard narration, this device takes the form of letters and emails, read aloud. This allows for the brevity of the setup, in which 40-year-old Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud) attempts to formally contact the Catholic diocese of Lyon to notify them of his childhood sexual abuse at the hands of Father Preynat (Bernard Verley). His contact is successful, and after a number of email exchanges and meetings, Alexandre is brought face-to-face with his abuser, for a brief discussion and a shared prayer. Because there’s nothing like bureaucracy and a speedy prayer to heal those invisible wounds that cut to a person’s core.
Alexandre’s dissatisfaction with the outcome is left hanging, and the narrative abruptly pivots to another key protagonist, and then another, all victims of the paedophile priest. It takes a moment to notice that the focus of the film has switched to another character, and this seamless segue shows Ozon’s skills as a storyteller. There’s a disconcerting scene between Alexandre and a diocese representative in which the church floats their objection to the very word paedophile, since it can technically mean someone who loves children. They settle upon paedo-sexual, which brought titters to the screening, even though this was more of a release of nervous tension. There are flashbacks to the actual abuse, which, although brief and decidedly non-gratuitous, are still harrowing.
It’s exceedingly difficult to prevent such dramatic material from faltering into melodrama, but Ozon’s assured restraint keeps the narration on its unsettlingly fulfilling track. What would already be compelling stuff is given added potency by the fact that the film is based on a true story, with all the main characters having real-life counterparts. A concluding titlecard reveals that the legal ramifications of the depicted abuse will soon be decided by a French court. The emotional and moral consequences of this and countless other comparable cases are unlikely to be so succinctly resolved.
By the Grace of God (Grâce à Dieu) does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2019 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.
Watch the trailer for By the Grace of God (Grâce à Dieu) here: