Cinema is a broad church; films may well excite us, but there are other purposes. A lengthy film dealing with child abuse offers a specific challenge. Who wants to see this kind of film, and what do they expect from it? And what good does it do to immerse ourselves in this subject? François Ozon is a French film director whose films have been characterised by their wit; sometimes they fly (In The House, Swimming Pool), others grate (8 Women). He puts most of his stylistic moves aside here to tackle a real-life scandal, one so recent that the court cases hadn’t yet concluded when the film was initially released, leading to a lawsuit against the film-makers which hasn’t impacted on critical and public acclaim.
By The Grace of God focuses on three men, Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupaud), François Debord (Denis Ménochet) and Emmanuel Thomassin (Swann Arlaud); each of them have been abused by the same man, a Catholic church priest in Lyon. Each man has been affected in a different way, but by reaching out to each other, they find a brotherhood despite their differences, and an investigation snowballs to involve not far short of a hundred other victims. The scale of the abuse is staggering, and there’s an explanation; the Church knew of the abuse and rather than stop it, they covered it up, allowing it to continue.
The title of Ozon’s film comes from an unfortunate slip of the tongue; a priest describes the statute of limitations as running out ‘by the grace of God’. But God seems to be absent from the world described here; the faith of the men is questioned, and several of them choose no longer believe. In fact, their faith seems to be the quality that made them vulnerable in the first place, and the dogmatic response of those accused only seems to reinforce the priest’s view that the abuse was done ‘in god’s name’.
One of the abused is advised to respond by taking ‘the poetry and the anger’ out of their public message, and Ozon seems to be operating under similar instructions. Oscar-winner Spotlight is a reasonable point of comparison, with a procedural bent ironing out any accusations of melodrama. Ozon presents characters and facts with methodical skill, but little of the contrivances that might be expected. A scene in which the victims discuss sky-writing a giant set of genitals above the local Basilica indicates awareness that there’s more that one way to make a point; Ozon’s careful, diligent, unsensational film confirms that he’s made a firm choice about how to present this material.
Yes, it’s hard to watch, but whatever discomfort cinemagoers might feel is nothing compared to the life-long suffering of the abused, something which puts By The Grace of God on the must-see list, dramatizing real and important events that should be seen by the widest audience possible. It’s only by understanding such events that they can be stopped, and Ozon’s film fearlessly lays the facts bare.
By The Grace of God is released in UK cinema on October 25th 2019, and can be streamed from the same date at