Early in By the Grace of God, Alexandre, a man in his 40s who is on his way to meet with the priest who sexual abused him as a child, takes a quick detour. Instead of going directly to the meeting, he darts instead into the church, likely to seek a moment of peace or prayer. It’s not a surprising choice; despite the devastating ways in which the Catholic Church has betrayed him, Alexandre remains a deeply religious man. But when he walks through the doors of the church, Alexandre freezes in horror. The abuser with whom he is about to meet, who is the source of his anxiety, is sitting in a pew in front of him.
Witnessing the way Alexandre’s moment of solace is stolen from him, and what we understand about him in that moment, is what makes the French film By the Grace of God so powerful. Although the film is inspired by a real story of sexual assault and abuse and a resulting coverup in a Catholic diocese in France, writer/director François Ozon uses the Catholic Church’s wide-ranging abuse scandal less as a subject and more as a lens through which to consider three men. Each of the three was assaulted by Fr. Bernard Preynat, a real French priest who confessed to sexually abusing children. Also real is Cardinal Philippe Barbarin (played in the film by François Marthouret), who covered up Preynat’s crimes and continued to move him to different positions in the diocese.
The three men profiled in the film are fictional, seemingly meant as stand-ins for Preynat and the Church’s many victims. Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), François (Denis Ménochet), and Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud) are brought together by their traumatizing experiences, but the three are actually quite different, and throughout the course of the film it becomes clear that their connections are both meaningful and tenuous.
The film is effectively split into thirds, spotlighting each man and specifically the way he deals with his decision to come forward and the consequences that follow. Ozon’s storytelling is tight, zeroing in almost entirely on the weeks and months surrounding those decisions and the actions each man takes as a result. It’s a smart approach in that it makes the film move quite quickly, but more importantly because it places everything else about the men’s lives – jobs, families, personalities, flaws – entirely at the service of how they intersect with this one aspect of who each of them is: the part that was assaulted and the part that is now, decades later, figuring out what to do with that experience.
That Ozon can tell a reasonably complete story – and in some ways, three reasonably complete stories – about such an enormous topic in one film is noteworthy. That he does it in such a compelling way is a credit both to him and his very strong cast. Arlaud in particular stands out as Emmanuel, a complicated character whose life hasn’t has quite as tidy an outcome as his gainfully employed husband/father counterparts. I found myself most heartbroken for Emmanuel and his desperate need for connection and answers, while also being troubled and sometimes alarmed by his treatment of his girlfriend and his attorney.
By the Grace of God builds investment in its three central characters so effectively that viewers can’t help but ask the question lurking behind their stories: “how would these men be different – or the same – if they had never been sexually abused?” The tragedy of the story is that for Alexandre, François, and Emmanuel, and for the many, many people for whom they stand in, there is no answer. But the impact of the film lies in the way Ozon reminds us the question still must be considered.
Content warning: as you may expect, the film discusses sexual abuse of minors in detail. It’s not gratuitous by any means, but there are multiple descriptions throughout.