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Film review: By the Grace of God (Grâce à Dieu)

01 November 2019

Stephen Brown sees the latest film about the cover-up of abuse

Melvil Poupaud as Alexandre Guérin in By the Grace of God

Melvil Poupaud as Alexandre Guérin in By the Grace of God

THE director François Ozon’s By the Grace of God (Grâce à Dieu) (Cert. 15) is a topical assessment of an ongoing child-abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church in France. The now adult Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupaud) learns in 2014 that his violator, Fr Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), still works with children. A meeting follows with his persecutor and the Lyons diocesan mediator, Régine Maire (Martine Erhel). Preynat’s failure to ask forgiveness surprises her. “But are priests capable of that?” she asks.

Guérin’s subsequent interview with Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret) leaves the audience feeling that the Church’s main aim is to effect reconciliation without resorting to courts. Frustrated, Guérin, who has remained a faithful Catholic, begins a campaign, eventually called Lift the Burden of Silence. Poignant as such real-life situations are, the film remains rather dull to this point. Ozon did, in fact, begin the enterprise as a documentary. Instead of displaying thoughts too deep for tears, he gives us voiceovers. Correspondence is read out, accompanied by images conveying little of the pathos.

The introduction of other abuse survivors enlisted to the cause is a turning-point, however. We hear their stories. François Debord (Denis Ménochet) is all for press stunts and sensationalism to expose not just Preynat, but the Church. “You’re taking on a man,” he tells another Lift the Burden member. “I’m taking on an institution.” A statute of limitations makes many cases ineligible for prosecution.

The film then centres on Emmanuel Thomassin (Swann Arlaud), molested more recently. He is in no mood for forgiveness, and is the most obviously damaged of the victims. The only trouble with these portraits of male vulnerability is that they have become akin to a relay race. First, Guérin runs some distance with his own situation before handing the baton to Debord, who passes it to Thomassin. The best part of the film is when the characters begin to interact. Docu-drama is left well behind, and we witness real emotional upsets within families and even among campaign members.

The older generation, by and large, remain in denial that the Church could behave in that way. Their middle-aged children react differently, arguing over the best way to achieve justice.

But for these scenes, it would be tempting to consider that there are enough films on the subject. In 2004, Almodóvar covered the effect of Franco-era religious schooling and abuse in Bad Education. Doubt (Arts, 4 February 2009) examined how priestly charm is utilised in grooming. Alex Gibney’s documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the house of God (Arts, 15 February 2013) looked at Milwaukee clergy’s misdemeanours. Spotlight (Arts, 29 January 2016) portrayed the Boston Globe’s investigation of clerical crimes. The Club (Arts, 24 March 2016) tried to understand why otherwise holy men behaved monstrously.

Ozon’s work only reinforces the outrage and is at its best when less is more. Guérin’s eldest son asks: “Do you still believe in God?” The film does not stay for his father’s answer. Dangling conversations and the space between the words when they occur transcend what, for the rest of the time, is reportage.

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