David G. Hughes on Francois Ozon’s ‘By the Grace of God’ (2018)
In the 11th century, a devout monk called St Peter Damian wrote a letter to Pope Leo IX (1002-1054) entitled “Liber Gomorrhianus” (“Book of Gomorrah”). Its contents concerned widespread moral corruption within the Catholic clergy, particularly priests penchant for sodomy with underage boys. Much to the chagrin of Damian, the Pope’s expressed horror and sympathies failed to transform into considerable disciplinary action. Ten centuries later and the situation remains all but the same. This is at least according to François Ozon’s devastating new feature, By the Grace of God / Grâce à Dieu, a cut-out from contemporary headlines concerning a true case of unprevented child abuses and its subsequent cover-up.
Specifically, the film concerns the alleged abuse by a single French priest (who has attempted to prevent the film’s release), Father Preynat (a brilliant Bernard Verly), and his multitude of victims. Rather than merely asserting the scale of the scandal and leaving us aghast, Ozon delves into the devastation that can be wrought onto individual lives and those closest to them in relation to a specific case. Beginning with the situation of Alexander (Melvil Poupaud), a middle-class banker who remains a devout Catholic and seeks justice within the institution, his actions gradually inspire more victims to come forward. Francois (Denis Menochet) comes into the story as a victim more belligerent in his approach, keen to take it to the press and make grand gestures of protest and apostasy. Finally, the film crosses class barriers when introducing Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud) who lacks the career and familial success of his fellow victims.
While the film is chiefly concerned with these three men (the narrative does not so much cut between each story as go from one to the next) and the pressure group organisation they come to form, it is also keen to showcase the multivariate responses that it provokes within their sphere of influence, be it the repression of fathers, the guilt of mothers, the jealousy of brothers, the support (or lack thereof) of spouses. “It was 30 years ago!” Alexander’s devoutly Catholic mother bemoans, concerned more about her son “bothering” the good people of the Church. Like the scandal itself, the story grows and gradually encompasses the extent to which the a “benign” individual can wreak so much collateral damage and emotional constipation upon the world.
Ozon’s chief achievement is resisting the temptation of salaciousness and simplicity, going instead for a dry and clinical dissection of events that no less loses its dramatic impetus. Indeed, much of the film is an adaptation of letter exchanges that showcase the bureaucracy of justice, particularly when dealing with the Church. Some of the best scenes concern the Church’s polite and expert evasions of the questions at hand, persistently resorting to the word “forgiveness” and “finding peace.” The temptation to play on the supposed holiness and innocence of the Church in contrast to sinister actions is for the most part resisted, but naturally not always. Ozon doesn’t forget tasteful humour despite the subject, usually found in the preposterous arrogance or disbelief of the Church, such as when the faux-sympathetic Cardinal Barbarin (Francois Marthouret) refuses to use the word “paedophile” as it doesn’t make “etymological sense,” for the Church cannot not love children. Or when the accused priest bemoans past violence enacted upon him by parents as there is “no need to be violent!”
By the Grace of God keeps a cool head, but never do we forget the turbulent forces that risk coming to the fore at any given moment, the crimes and passions that have brought us all here. It is certainly this dynamic that keeps us enticed for its extended duration, for underneath all the quiet exterior of processes, conversations, and letters is a theological drama boiling away – what is essentially a wrestle with God in the Jacobian sense. As an institution, the Church comes across wholly inadequate when dealing with life’s conundrums; as for God, either he is either not there or malevolent himself. His presence is alluded to via soft light emerging into dark rooms, but his absence is felt in the trauma, dysfunction, and pain.
Ozon shows that issues of justice and forgiveness are not simple, maybe even in conflict or based on a secular / religious distinction. Not to mention that the question of vengeance in all this remains ambiguous. Ozon is bold enough to show that the community and purpose fostered by the victims organisation gradually begins to show signs of divergence when it comes to such philosophical / theological issues, and then leaving it at that.
As long as faith is concerned with making sense out of chaos, we dare say that the film is religious in its approach, giving credence to one victim’s suggestion that, “we are doing this for the Church, not against it.” Whether Ozon is doing this for the Church or against it remains intentionally abstruse. For the sake of art and actually finding a scintilla of truth in age-old hurt, that’s probably the way it should be. As opposed to the righteous victory for truth as embodied in the firmly secular Spotlight (2015), Ozon at least wrestles with theological questions on His own turf; but as the story of Jacob shows, as much as we are willing to wrestle with God, God is just as willing to get down and dirty in the mud and wrestle back.
Premiered as part of the 69th Berlin International Film Festival