BY THE GRACE OF GOD (orig. “Grâce à Dieu”) (dir. François Ozon) 2019 Philadelphia Film Festival review

Prepare to be outraged, triggered, maybe cringe a bit, cry a bit, smile a bit, or get up and cheer for justice. At the very least, you’ll grow more empathy toward others by the end of the film.

Based on real events leading up to an ongoing Lyon-based trial, By the Grace of God (“Grace a Dieu”) reopens wounds that never healed from the criminal acts of a pedophile who also happened to be a priest (!) entrusted by the Catholic Church and by hundreds of families, for over 30 years, to protect and guide their children. Instead, Bernard Preynat took advantage of their innocence, of the ample time spent with them at summer camp and photo lab, and of his shielded position in the Church, whose Cardinal Barbarin is convicted for covering up the affair.

Statute of limitation is only one of many obstacles the victims are confronted with—the biggest obstacle being their own lingering feelings of shame, confusion and fear of the potential backlash.

Alexandre Guerin, not surprisingly, is played by Melvil Poupaud, who has starred/appeared in Ozon’s films before. He’s the perfect father, husband, banker, but when the Preynat affair blows up, he struggles to remain a perfect Catholic. His faith is challenged when he has to publicly denounce the Church’s wrongdoings. His mother, unsupportive, asks why he insists on scratching old scars and stirring shit from the past.

Emmanuel Thomassin (Swann Arlaud), a dysfunctional zebra whose prodigious intelligence couldn’t possibly heal his emotional wounds, is perhaps the most distraught when the affair is brought to his attention. Not only is he incapable of forming healthy relationships, he also bears a physical reminder of the abuse: a warped penis deformed as a result of the circular motion in which Preynat rubbed him. As if that weren’t enough damage, the doctor refuses to address the cause of the deformation all-together, let alone attest that a sexual act performed on a child could’ve been the cause of his genital malformation. We watch Emmanuel go through cascades of emotions, memories, and unhealthy patterns only to find the long-sought-after peace. 

Even Francois Debord (Denis Ménochet)—whose parents defended and supported since childhood, from the first moment he told them about Preynat kissing him and grabbing his behind—was reluctant to bring up the trauma again until he saw Preynat still working with children. A sucker for publicity, headlines and making a buzz, Francois’s assertive ways and politicized claims begin to irritate those who aren’t comfortable being the center of attention. His family dynamics are another reminder that despite parental support, no family escapes the repercussions of childhood sexual abuse. 

Both Alexandre and Francois’s wives play key roles in pushing or pulling the cord at the right time as they stand in a delicate position between being their partners’ rock, regulating their own emotions and memories, and accompanying their children through understanding their fathers’ vulnerability. 

“By accepting his plea for forgiveness, you would have become his prisoner.” Marie Guerin (Aurélia Petit) says to Alexandre, encouraging her husband to keep moving forward with the case. Because the whole mantra of “forgive those who did you wrong, wish them peace and move on” is just not enough sometimes. I appreciate that forgiveness is not at the center of this film, and neither is vengeance (although Francois does get carried away with his mediatization ideas.) At the center is a potent claim for separation of powers, public transparency, denunciation and condemnation of silence as complicity.

And the culprit in all this? Try not to spit at the screen. Though he confesses, Preynat also plays the victim. He doesn’t deny his actions, but he is in denial of the severity of the trauma he has inflicted on his victims, and the tangled chain of tragedies he triggered in the lives of the victims, their families and their loved ones. He claims in self-pity that he’s ill, suffering from his perversion, and has been living in fear ever since some angry parents attacked him. 

Surely you deserved it, Father.

Part of the 2019 Philadelphia Film Festival.

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