“BY THE GRACE OF GOD” (Grace a Dieu)— A Sobering Look at Three Church Trauma Cases

“BY THE GRACE OF GOD” (Grace a Dieu)

A Sobering Look at Three Church Trauma Cases

Amos Lassen

Director François Ozon avoids sensationalism in his “ By the Grace of God”, his film  is based on the true events surrounding the Catholic Church’s coverup of a sex abuse scandal and the efforts of a group of adult survivors to bring the pedophile priest to justice. The film depicts the men of this group gradually coming together, through an epistolary device of letters exchanged between the men, and between the men and the church that are read in voiceover as the audience follows their quest for justice. After forming their association, the men weaponize archives and the media to force their abuser into the open and finally defeat him.

Though able to recognize the depravity of his deeds and willing to confront his victims, Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley) seems almost unaware of the extent of which he’s caused these men pain. When the priest is confronted at different points by Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud) and Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), his apparent contrition is disarming. Ozon keeps the camera close to the priest’s face, so we can see his eyes dart around as he alternates between meeting the gaze of his accuser and avoiding it. There are times that Preynat seems almost sympathetic. Yet he refuses to admit full responsibility for his actions and hides behind the church. He insists that he’s gripped by a disease, and that he informed his superiors of it as if he had no responsibility in the matter.

The story comes to us with an almost journalistic sobriety. Ozon is  rigidly dedicated to the truth as his justice-seeking protagonists. Each section of the film looks one of Preynat’s victims—Alexandre, François (Denis Ménochet), and Emmanuel and the specifics and the differences in how each man was affected by their molestation and by his decision to speak out. Alexandre remains committed to the Catholic church and has the unflagging support of his wife and five children. The atheistic François, meanwhile, adopts a more vengeful stance, and is uninterested in sparing the church from his wrath. As for Emmanuel, he’s the most apparently damaged of the group, both mentally and physically. His molestation resulted in a deformity, and he is unable to manage his trauma.

As the three men, spurred on by Alexandre’s initial dogged pursuit of accountability within the church, seek out other survivors to build a case against Preynat, they’re halted by Cardinal Philippe Barbarin (François Marthouret), the archbishop of Lyon. Barbarin is the total embodiment of the church’s hypocrisy as an institution. He hides behind pious phrases and expressions of sympathy while continuing to cover the abuses. In one notable scene, he points to a wall and the famous photograph of a frightened boy in the Warsaw Ghetto surrounded by Nazis. Ozon lets the camera linger on the image and evokes the irony of Barbarin’s performed care for a child’s welfare and the history of another of the church’s major moral failings in its silence while Europe’s Jews were being sent to concentration camps.

Repeatedly, Barbarin and other members of the local church hierarchy rely on dogma’s emphasis on forgiveness as a shield thus deflecting the men’s complaints by urging them to forgive Preyart and to find inner peace through God. As the atheist in the group, François naturally has no patience for this and even the devout Alexandre recognizes this strategy of indirect disavowal for what it is. My little problem here is that once the three men decided upon their course of action, they pursue it by calmly discussing strategy and being open about their feelings.

Ozon gives us a detailed picture of a complex process—the collective battle against an intractable institution (an institution that should have lost all credibility when we were first aware of these abuses. At one point, when consulting with a priest who mentions pedophilia and homosexuality in the same breath, Alexandre outlines to the man why the two aren’t the same. I almost expected Alexandre to turn to the camera and remind us that he exists as much for the man’s edification as he does for our own.

Ozon represses all his directorial urges to tell how three men from Lyon have taken Philippe Barbarin, the Archbishop of the city, to trial, alleging he has knowingly sheltering Reverend Bernard Preynat, a self-confessed pedophile priest who abused them as children.

In actuality, nine victims of Preynat’s abuses have summoned Barbarin, but Ozon’s film looks at three of them. We begin in 2014, with 40-year-old banker Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud) learning in passing that the priest who abused him when he was a boy scout is still working with children.

Alexandre appears to have a perfect life, a beautiful wife and five children but his trauma runs deep. Poupaud plays him with an almost supercilious demeanor. He’s so calm and put-together that it’s all the more devastating the few times his façade breaks.

The story is told through the series of written correspondences Alexander has with the Archbishop and it becomes clear during the back and forth that the church would like to sweep the issue under the carpet. The film gains some heat with Francois who takes the baton from Alexandre to go public to the press about the cover-up. Francois also seeks out more of Preynat’s victims, one of whom is Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), whose whole life has been tragically thrown off course as a result of the sexual abuse. Arlaud’s wiry, melancholic performance brings poignancy and we wish that we’d gotten to his character’s story much earlier.

“By the Grace of God” is a welcome act of solidarity with a group of men who have been betrayed and ignored by the very institution sworn to protect the helpless. I just cannot understand how anyone can remain a member of the Catholic Church knowing what we now on. Early on in my teaching career, I taught at a Christian Brothers boarding high school and what I saw there was sickening. Two of the brothers will spend the rest of their lives in jail. Even worse is that it continues.

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