For the past two decades, François Ozon has produced almost one film a year, making him France’s most prolific and diverse director – whether he’s giving us musicals (8 Women), mysteries (Swimming Pool), histories (Frantz) or more besides. But throughout his career, he’s never made a film like By The Grace of God, a powerful and resonant drama that feels like the French answer to the Oscar-winning Spotlight, which told the true story of journalists uncovering a sex abuse cover up in the Catholic Church in Boston.
Again, By The Grace of God is a true story of horrifying abuses of young boys – this time in France. But perhaps the difference to Spotlight is that as Ozon unveiled the film back in February at the Berlin Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize, the case against the serial abuser, Father Bernard Preynat, and Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, who turned a blind eye to his crimes, was still ongoing. Rarely does a film feel this immediate, this ripped from the headlines.
Added to which, Ozon’s film tackles the story with a daring relay-race like structure, as the narrative is passed from one character to the next. It begins with Alexandre (Melville Poupaud), a 40 year-old family man who lives in Lyon. When he discovers that Preynat, who abused him during his boyhood time in the Scouts, is still working with children, he decides to take action – confronting both Preynat (Bernard Verley) and Barbarin (François Marthouret).
When he’s met with feigned concern by the latter, his actions reach no satisfying conclusion – one scene where he literally is made to prey with Preynat is quite sickening. But gradually word gets out, and in comes François (Inglorious Basterds star Denis Ménochet), another victim who takes a more decisive and angry approach. As these men gather others around them – including Swann Arlaud’s volatile working-class wreck – their case against the Church grows.
Ozon builds the story with forensic care, examining both the legal and emotional fallout in a story that grows in potency over its 137 minute running time. Bolstered by strong performances – notably Poupaud, who previously featured in Ozon’s Time to Leave and The Refuge – it’s the kind of film that will make you feel angry when you leave the cinema, but also relieved that some form of justice has been served.
By The Grace of God opens on 25 October. For more details, visit here.
1. Stills from By The Grace of God.