By the Grace of God (2019) Movie Review: Shines a Spotlight on the Catholic Church Scandal

A strongly acted and skillfully directed examination of a recently-closed case.
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It wasn’t that long ago that Tom McCarthy released Spotlight, the Best Picture-winning biopic that showcased a team of Boston Globe reporters investigating and, eventually, exposing the allegations that a Catholic priest in the area had molested more than 80 boys. That was mostly seen from the perspective of the journalists and the struggles they experienced in a pre-9/11 world - as well as what happened when that infamous day struck.  With By the Grace of God, François Ozon takes a similar story, also based on true events, that is set a decade after the events of Spotlight and in a different country. What Ozon also does differently is showcase it from the perspective of those who were molested as children, but have kept it hidden for years - even from their close friends and family.

One of the more intriguing aspects of By the Grace of God is, the actual case on which it is based just recently closed. The film made its premiere in France in December of 2018, while the trial of Cardinal Philippe Barbarian was still taking place. Talk about being timely. Originally meant to be a documentary, Ozon instead opts for a docudrama approach, giving him more creative freedom with the subject at hand. It’s a gutsy move, but also one that should be applauded.

The film begins with Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), a man based in Lyon, France, who is devoted to both his family and his faith. But there has been something he’s been holding back for years. As a child, he was molested by Father Bernard Preyant (Bernard Verley). When word spreads that Preyant is still working with young children, Alexandre feels uneasy, but also knows that something must be done. The film’s opening narration is a letter that Alexandre writes to Cardinal Philippe in regards to his feelings toward Father Bernard still working with children and how he wishes to further detail the events that happened to him years prior.

Once Alexandre’s accusations toward the priest become publicly known, two other victims, Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud) and Francois (Denis Minochet), come forward to testify as well. But the men have a lot to get through before Father Bernard can serve trial. One major conflict is the statute of limitations, while another is on a more personal level. The latter is the men having to juggle their emotions and to deal with the response from those around them.

By the Grace of God is exceptionally acted from all involved and truly digs deep into how an incident such as this can have a massive impact on those directly affected and the ones they love. There’s a terrific scene in which a family dinner turns into a shouting fest over the fact that one member thinks the victim is getting all the attention due to the current case. It’s a punch to the gut and doesn’t come off as a scene that is desperate for attention from award ceremonies. Neither does the rest of the movie. It’s an unsettling and realistic look at how a scandal that has gone on for years can remain hidden, and the aftermath of what happens when the truth comes to light.

The comparisons to Spotlight will obviously happen, especially when Ozon decided to place a poster of the film into his movie way late into the story. It’s as if Ozon knew the comparisons were going to come and figured the poster would be a nice nod to another film that focuses on a similar subject. It actually comes off as a bit of a distraction, but it doesn’t hamper the film’s overall impact.

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