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By the Grace of God
Grâce à Dieu
★★★★☆
First run Theater cinema

François Ozon (Swimming Pool, Young & BeautifulFrantz) is one of the best cinematic storytellers of the past twenty years in part because he always brings something unexpected and original to the various genres he undertakes. Though most well known for psychosexual thrillers and satirical comedies, he’s never limited himself to the parameters of any one type of picture, as his latest, By the Grace of God, makes clear. It technically falls within the dubious, ripped-from-the-headlines docudrama genre and covers the well-trod ground of sexual abuse by priests and the subsequent cover-ups of these crimes by the Catholic Church. The biggest surprise Ozon brings to this material is that fact-based features like this one can be fiercely compelling and powerful, even when little artistic license is used to heighten the drama or make the story more cinematic.

Readers of this blog will know I’m a long-time defender of filmmakers who take liberties with the facts of a true story if it helps convey the emotional truth of the events they’re depicting. It’s absurd to suggest that any fictionalized account of real-life events reinterpreted on screen by actors in an easily consumable two-hour capsule can ever convey actual reality. But Ozon, known for exploring the extremes of human sexuality in humorous, titillating, often outrageous fiction, deviates as little as possible from the actual events he depicts here. He tells this story as straight down the line as any work of filmed entertainment can.

Based on the case of the French priest Bernard Preynat and the more than eighty survivors who came forward as adults, many after the statute of limitations had passed, to testify about his predatory abuse, Ozon tells this story patiently through letters, difficult conversations, and multiple frustrating scenes of stonewalling by people who claim they want to help. He structures the narrative around three men who eventually form a victims’ group that brings press coverage and legal action against the archdiocese of Lyon and its popular archbishop, Philippe Barbarin. Each man is the protagonist of a section of the movie, and we spend extensive time with them and their families. We learn about each of their attempts to deal with their traumatic past before circumstances bring them together.

This disciplined approach to storytelling feels revolutionary in our current era of long-form TV drama, where nearly every narrative we’re presented with ping-pongs back and forth from scene to scene in the various storylines of an ensemble cast—often with no artistry in the juxtaposition of these narrative threads. The ubiquity of this often lazy approach to writing and editing makes a film like this, which has the forbearance to tell one aspect of a story at a time and the courage to risk boring the audience by not zipping back and forth to check on each character’s progress as the drama unfolds, feel far more substantial and intriguing. Blessed with performances as powerful as the ones featured here, Ozon wastes no time worrying about possibly disorienting his viewers each time the film shifts away from the protagonist we’ve been following onto a new character.

The picture unfolds like reading a book of individual accounts, and thus we discover for ourselves over time how many people have been affected by the criminal deeds of one priest and how differently the sexual trauma they experienced has impacted their adult lives. The timely film is clearly designed to be a French Spotlight (we even see a poster for that 2015 Oscar-winning American film on a wall at one point) dramatizing, in this instance, a legal case that hadn’t yet gone to trial when the movie went into production. But at its core, By the Grace of God is a timeless exploration of the repressed emotional struggles of men. The richness of the interactions between each main character and the various supporting players in their lives—wives, girlfriends, parents, siblings, children, and the Church officials whom they interact with—gets to the depth, reach, and permanent ramifications of childhood sexual abuse, especially by powerful community leaders who claim to be representatives of God. Thus Ozon’s latest plays like a meticulous and riveting procedural, an effective social-issue melodrama free of overt moralizing, grandstanding, or Oscar-baiting monologues, and three fascinating character studies that will stay with you long after the credits roll.

Twitter Capsule:Ozon's disciplined approach to this story of three men who confront the sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of a priest in Lyon France demonstrates how powerful the docudrama format can be when minimal artistic license is taken.

Directed by François Ozon
Produced by Eric Altmayer and Nicolas Altmayer

Written by François Ozon

With: Melvil Poupaud, Denis Ménochet, Swann Arlaud, Éric Caravaca, François Marthouret, Bernard Verley, Josiane Balasko, Martine Erhel, Hélène Vincent, François Chattot, Frédéric Pierrot, Aurélia Petit, Julie Duclos, Jeanne Rosa, and Amélie Daure

Cinematography: Manuel Dacosse
Editing: Laure Gardette
Music: Evgueni Galperine and Sacha Galperine

Runtime: 137 min
Release Date: 01 January 2019
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color