By the Grace of God (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director François Ozon takes real-life stories of adults sexually abused as children by a priest and fictionalizes them in order to make a cohesive whole in “By the Grace of God,” both a ruminative and angry film that demands justice and change from the Catholic Church. Although it possesses a dramatic core, it is fascinating that humanist filmmaker Ozon chooses at times to tell the story as if it were in fact a documentary by simply following the traumatized victims through their day-to-day lives in hopes of eventually connecting with the right persons of authority—within the church, the government, the media—to prevent future molestations of children in the hands of Catholic priests. It is told with clarity, confidence, and purpose.
Although hundreds of boys were sexually abused by predator Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), we meet three men who were in his care from 1988-1991: Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), father of five whose faith touches nearly every aspect of his life; François (Denis Ménochet), an atheist who has kept his guilt and trauma under wraps for so long that upon hearing legal action is actually being taken against Preynat, we come to witness a man with a renewed sense of purpose; and Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), a man with an IQ of 140 but suffering from a physical deformity linked directly to Preynat’s abuse.
We spend equal time with each of these men—and their home lives—and so we get a complete picture of what the legal battle means to them personally and as a unit. We even come to meet some of their aging parents; not all of them support the idea of going after the church because their faith is deeply ingrained in their identity. To them, why bother excavating what happened 30 years ago? After all, the statute of limitations has already passed. It must no longer be relevant or important. Just move on. Ozon makes the point that it is important to include such perspective in this story because embracing certain attitudes may be a contributing factor as to why there remains no justice to many men and women who have been abused by priests. These predators continue to be around children with impunity. Their “punishment” is simply being moved to another location, free to ruin another child’s life.
The director is not afraid to place a monster in front of the camera, and he dares us to stare at the subject’s face, his body, his movements, whether or not he looks at his victims in the eye. Not fifteen minutes into the picture, Preynat is front and center admitting, in front of a church official, that he did in fact molest Alexandre as a boy and in under what circumstances. Details matter and this work treats the viewers like mature, intelligent, and thoughtful adults; never is an opinion or insight painted in black and white. Even those who disagree with the victims’ methods of garnering media attention in order to pressure the Church. And so it leaves us room to contemplate and consider where a person might be coming from.
The greatest strength of “By the Grace of God” is its willingness to paint every character as a living, breathing person who is complex, full of inconsistencies, fears, insecurities, and redeeming qualities, too. It is impressive that all of the performers possess a story in their eyes. The writer-director shoots scenes so organically, there are instances when it feels like we are sitting in a room where we shouldn’t be. The picture is raw, direct, and worthy of the subject being explored. It is not interested in sentimentality.
★★★★ / ★★★★
It is most appropriate that the final image of the picture is seen through the eyes of a neighbor. After all, the material tasks the viewer to watch closely and intensely as gradations of violence are shown on screen—most of them quiet but heavy and unrelenting. Tension can be broken with a dull knife. We are helpless, we want to scream, we wish to call for help. It becomes increasingly apparent—alarmingly apparent—that something is terribly wrong. Writer-director Xavier Legrand takes a look at a family and crisis and shoves us into a headspace of a victim, particularly that of a minor (Thomas Gioria) who must spend every other weekend with his father (Denis Ménochet).
An artillery of words is just as loud as silence that sits like a heavy fog. Observe the opening sequence involving the warring spouses, the lawyers that represent them, and the judge who must make a decision by the end of the week. We are presented with facts, opinions, recollections, and letters of recommendation within a span of fifteen minutes. There is a lot to digest. Words are rich in implications. Questions pummel the mind. It makes it all the more difficult to believe one side over another since there are numerous conflicting elements in each party’s testimony. Are we meant to be impartial? The script allows us freedom.
It is established that Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine’s (Besson) marriage is beyond repair. But they have children. No matter what the judge decides, we get the feeling that neither side would be completely happy. Because happiness is freedom. Due to the former couple having children, they can never really be free of one another. This is not the kind of drama where spouses end up finding that spark again only by spending more time together, perhaps even forgiving each other’s grave mistakes. There is no forgiveness nor is there a need for it. I admired that the sharp and efficient writing is not interested in such a thing. Walking down that avenue would have been the easier route to provide the audience warm feelings. No, its laser-like focus is more interested in what must happen to this family and why it is worth following them for the time being.
Silence is violent because we anticipate it must be broken eventually. Still, the film offers rich details when it appears nothing is happening or being expressed. When there is a pause in the dialogue, we wonder what the characters are thinking. Note the awkward interactions between the father and his son while sitting in a van. When there is silence, read the body language. Particularly uncomfortable is watching the boy’s tension-filled comportment: his torso is almost always angled slightly away from the figure he fears, eye contact is kept at a minimum, and there is no excitement in his voice. When the boy does react—anger, frustration, helplessness—a shade of sadness hovers over him. Gioria does an excellent job in making these small but critical choices. He makes it look like the role is not just for any young performer. At one point, I was so convinced by his portrayal that I wondered if he knew how it was like to get caught up in a toxic parental separation.
“Jusqu’à la garde” is an impressive debut feature. It is told without impactful subplots or supporting characters that function as decorations. It attempts to lock the viewers into a heavy mood by ensuring that just about every element is realistic. Because of this, we get the feeling that anything can happen—even unhappy endings. Here is a film that does not care if the viewer feels good so long as the viewer remains interested every step of the way.