‘By the Grace of God’: Film skewers pedophile priests in France
Melvil Poupaud as Alexandre

François Ozon’s new film By the Grace of God (Grâce à Dieu) is a gripping true story of three adult men who banded together to expose the code of silence in the Catholic Church that continued to enable a priest who abused them as boys.

The powerful indictment of the ecclesiastical hierarchy that allowed scandalous priestly behavior to go on unrestrained for decades is brought up to date with legal developments in the case as recently as the summer of 2019.

In many ways this is the French counterpart to the 2015 American film Spotlight, which focused on reporters from the Boston Globe investigating child abuse in the Catholic Church in that city. By the Grace of God won the Silver Bear at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival.

Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), a solid upper middle-class bank official, lives in Lyon, a bastion of the French Catholic bourgeoisie, with his wife and five children. A fervent churchgoer, he learns in 2014 that Father Preynat (Bernard Verley), the priest who abused him when he was a Boy Scout in the early 1980s, is still working with children. As a conscientious believer and citizen, he decides to take action—“not against the Church but for the Church.”

He is not overtly blocked in his pursuit of justice within the Church. Cardinal Barbarin (one letter off from “barbarian”), portrayed by François Marthouret, assures him these are difficult and regrettable episodes in the Church’s past that the Church is now firmly committed to rectifying. Oh, how he feels Alexandre’s pain. But then Alexandre is stonewalled, humored, delayed, patronized and lied to—and advised to pray, forgive, and not allow these memories to fester for his own peace of mind. The way the film gets its title is thanks to this oily Cardinal.

Well along in the film, Alexandre is joined by two other victims of the priest, François (Denis Ménochet) and Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud). The three men will go to great lengths to denounce the perpetrator and the institution that has always protected him. Aside from all the personal demons aroused in this endeavor, which many victims long ago decided would be better put to rest, the film exposes the risks and dangers of going public—loss of respect in the community, fissures reopening within families, relationships with loved ones frayed almost to the breaking point. Each of the men is forced to examine his own fragility and analyze for himself what part of that stems from early childhood trauma. At the same time, each grows in self-confidence as they begin to form a mutually supportive community of victims and start winning victories in the Church, in the press, and in the courts.

The drama focuses on the attempt to find other victims of Father Preynat, who one by one, as they hear about the investigation, start appearing. Not all of them, however, are ready to join the suit to punish the “Preynateur” (a pun on the priest’s name and “predator”—aside from the fact that at least in English the name contains the word “prey”). For these guys the wounds are still too raw.

It is important to find the most recent incidents of abuse, for those of Alexandre’s generation have already run out the statute of limitations. The victim has to be willing to press charges and thereby surrender anonymity. In the meantime there’s a kind of humorous cat-and-mouse game going on between the police, the press and social media as to who gets to frame and tell the juicy story.

From time to time we get dreamy flashbacks, almost as if seen in a home movie from thirty years before, of the St.Luc Boy Scout trips to Portugal, Ireland or elsewhere, where the cowardly Preynat molested his unsuspecting targets. He maliciously picked on boys with family problems who might have been looking for a strong father figure, or in one case on a mute boy he knew could not rat him out.

Important roles are played by the women in these men’s lives—wives, girlfriends and mothers. If the Church itself resists repentance and confession, it is also the parents of the children whose stories come into view. In the case of François, his mother early on sent protest letters to Church officials, which were cruelly ignored. Fortunately she kept copies of her correspondence for the police to see years later. In other cases, the parents simply could not accept their young sons telling them that a priest had kissed them, thinking it an innocent, blameless gesture.

Alexandre’s parents steadfastly oppose his activism as an embarrassment to the family. How does it look, after all, when his wife teaches at the Catholic school where the five children are all receiving their education? Why rock the boat at this late date?

Alexandre has an emotionally draining encounter with his abuser during the course of his search for justice. Will Father Preynat admit his crime, show repentance, ask for pardon? And will he receive his victim’s forgiveness?

So many other questions arise. What is the material substance of pardon and forgiveness anyway? Do both abused and abuser go home and have a nice peaceful sleep that night, finally liberated from their torment like that? “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us?” Great. Confession and forgiveness can be very useful tools.

True, we all know people who nurture grudges and resentments all their lives and are internally destroyed by them. Yet we are dealing here not with “sins” but with actual crimes, and forgiveness alone cannot always erase the damage. For many people of fervent faith (any faith, not just Catholic, as we often see), it is simply not done to publicly expose the failings of church leaders.

Alongside our institutions of religion, which we know are not always responsive, we also have civil society, with its laws and enforcement. François, who now as an adult considers himself an atheist, pursues civil justice irrespective of what internal judgments the Church may or may not impose.

This brings into relief a weak point in the film. Lyon itself may be a Catholic stronghold, but generally speaking France is a highly secular country and we don’t know that from the film. So much of the world pictured here is seen between the walls of Church and home, especially around the central figure of Alexandre—the other men have distanced themselves from the faith. Writer and director Ozon might have provided some counterpoint with a casual conversation with a friend or neighbor directly challenging him on the very idea of religious submission. To his credit, though, toward the end, one of his sons poignantly asks him, “Papa, do you still believe in God?”

“The real question,” says Ozon in a pre-release interview, “is: Do you still believe in the Catholic institution?”

Frankly one has to wonder if Father Preynat himself believes in God: His lack of repentance certainly shows no sign of his being terrified of the eternal damnation that awaits him in the next world. And while I am on my soapbox, I would apply that to that whole flock of Bible-tootin’ hypocrites we see in every corner of society in every land. Feed the hungry? Clothe the poor? Poppycock!

Pope Francis, whose recent rulings on priestly pederasty have restored some Roman Catholics’ faith in the Church’s capacity for self-examination, is certainly aware that his people have been leaving the Church in droves. But the damage control may have come too late. Former Catholics are either just not religious at all (largely the case in such traditionally Catholic countries such as France, Italy and Spain), or they have drifted toward High Church denominations like the Anglicans and Episcopalians or, especially in Latin America, toward the evangelical Christian movement.

The other point worth making is that priests are also known to abuse young girls. Perhaps the opportunities do not present themselves so often, given the primacy the Church offered to those of the male persuasion, but such cases do exist and might have been mentioned. (Likely they were not part of the factual proceedings fictionalized here.) There is much evidence to suggest that pederasts and homosexuals have historically sought out careers in the Church because there they could pursue their sexual interests relatively undisturbed—praying for prey, you might say.

The running time for By the Grace of God is 137 minutes—eight minutes longer than Spotlight. If you add on the commercials and the previews, it will be a long outing at the cinema: This serves as your official bladder alert. Could a few minutes have been cut? I think so, maybe by eliminating one dead-end story of a subsidiary character. It’s in French with English subtitles.

Despite some small criticisms, it’s a riveting “spiritual” thriller that takes no “liberties with the facts,” according to the director. If you liked and appreciated Spotlight, you will be in familiar territory.

Written and directed by François Ozon, the Music Box Films release features cinematography by Manu Dacosse, production design by Emmanuelle Duplay, and costume design by Pascaline Chavanne.

It opens in in New York on October 18 at Film Forum and Landmark at 57 West, and in Los Angeles on October 25 at the Nuart, followed by a national rollout. The trailer can be viewed here.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.