Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 18, 2019 9:11 am 
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Fighting the Church's protection of pedophiles in France

 Francois Ozon’s new Grace à Dieu AKA By the Grace of God is a fascinating movie  about a belated campaign to defrock a  pedophile priest in Lyons, France, who abused dozens, maybe hundreds of boys.  It is so absorbing because it gets so involved in each new important  former victim who joins the group organizing to get him out of the priesthood and away from young boys, where the Church has allowed him to remain for the past 30 years.  It’s more a leisurely study of  a series individuals than a tract, though it’s about the slow local-building  movement as well.  It hovers around the question, why and how can the Catholic Church hide and enable all these pedophiles?  By the Grace of God invites comparison with Tom McCarthy's Spotlight and John N. Smith's two-part The Boys of St. Vincent as one of the finest movies ever made about this subject.
This director is usually frivolous but then, his second to-last last film was Franz, that quiet, melancholy study of a WWI friendship across enemy lines, which was quite serious. Yet Franz too has its  fanciful, fantastic side, like Ozon's Under the Sand, In the House, and Double Lover.  By the Grace of God in contrast resides wholly in the realm of the actual. It digs deep into painful realities, both past and present. It's Ozon's most serious film and one of his very best.

It begins with a banker in his forties, Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupaud), a straitlaced, devout Catholic married with four sons, who discovers that Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), the priest who abused him sexually when he was 12, is back in Lyon, still a priest and still practicing among kids. His shock at this appalling fact causes Alexandre to cast aside piety and reserve and begin a polite but intense campaign to stop this that leads him  eventually to more than one personal meeting with the highest local cleric, Philippe Barbarin, Archbiship of Lyon (François Marthouret), and to write letters directly to the Pope.

Eventually it is Philippe Barbarin, Archbiship of Lyon, who goes on trial for knowingly concealing criminal acts, and even as this (therefore "ripped from the headlines") film was released, this case is still ongoing. According to Paris Match, lawyers for père Bernard Preynat fought the release of this film on the grounds that it would damage the presumption of innocence of their client.

Alexandre's life and his campaign are thoroughly explored here. Equally so the next campaigner who comes along, big, boisterous atheist François Debord (Denis Ménochet). François has a wife and kids too and lots of friends.  Debord's utterly different style and attitudes lead him to enlist the media and start building a systematic organization and contact other men who were abused as children by Preynat. Many are willing to help but not to come forward and abandon anonymity. A calm surgeon Gilles (Éric Caravaca) comes along to moderate the contrast between the two men; but still there is nobody yet young enough for their testimony to be unbound by the statute of limitations.

But then they find Emmanuel Thomassin (Swann Artaud, who was so touching in Charuel's Petit Paysan (R-V 2018) . Emmanuel is young enough for legally binding testimony.  He is also an extremely problematic man, of high IQ but subject to fits, troubled, unmarried, jobless, dependent on his mother., marked by the trauma visited upon him.  The film enters as enthusiastically into Emmanuel's life as it has entered in turn into those of Alexandre and François.  

Poupaud, Médochet and Artaud  are wonderful casting, three strong and very different personalities and acting styles to define these three very different men. Caravaca is fine too.  The horror and rage and frustration of this story is mediated by the quiet fascination of exploring varied lives and personalities. We see less of Vernay as Father Preynat and Marthuouret as  Barbarin but we see them vividly and they leave us stunned.  The Archbiship is particularly devious, seeming to cooperate but ultimately never really yielding. Father Preynat is slippery too, admitting to his crimes from the first but saying he's helpless, and not apologizing. Together they well embody the energetic criminality of the clergy on the one hand and the stonewalling and persistent enabling of its administrative structure on the other. The  French, Grâce à Dieu, les faits sont prescrits" where he forgets himself and admits he's glad the statute of limitations has saved the Church from  prosecution again.   This is a compelling page-turner of a film that combines to paint a stunning, quietly building picture.  Like Spotlight, it provides no gruesome flashbacks to the abuse, but the sex is described in stunningly plain terms, especially by Alexandre.

Though this may seem strange I find that due to its patient curiosity and sympathy By the Grace of God is just as satisfying as it is infuriating. The two qualities balance each other, Nonetheless arguably  Ozon may have gotten more serious than necessary here.  He might have kept a little of his humor. He has chosen a pace that may make some impatient; but if you settle in, there's nourishing fare here.

By the Grace of God/Grâce à Dieu, 137 mins., debuted at Angers Dec. 2018, also at the Paris Rendez-vous du Cinéma Français, and showed at Berlin (winning the Jury Prize), Istanbul and Hong Kong, opening in various French cities and in Brussels and Switzerland.  Released theatrically in France Feb. 20, 2019, it received generally rave reviews (AlloCiné press rating 4.1 aggregating  34 critics), though some, like Cahiers, chided it as needlessly pedestrian.   Its US release is Oct. 18, 2019. . Metascore 79%.

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