One of the most tragic scandals of the modern world that won’t seem to go away is child sexual abuse perpetrated on a large scale by priests of the Catholic church, and the church hierarchy that too often seeks to protect the predators. Writer/director François Ozon’s new film, By the Grace of God, is the latest to spotlight survivors’ stories.
The movie follows a scenario that played out in France recently, involving a group of men who waged a legal and PR campaign against the veteran priest who sexually abused them as children. The survivors also had to take on the Catholic church when they learned that the church, despite having received complaints about the offending priest, continued to allow him to work with children.
Then and now
Ozon’s adaptation of a true story examines how the priests traumatized these people as children (and their families). Just as important, the film shows what these men went through when they decided to come forward with their stories, seeing justice for what they and other boys went through as children.
The film opens with Alexandre (Melvil Poupod), a 40-something family man and successful banker who is uncovering the repressed memories of his childhood experiences. Despite everything, he is still a devout church-goer, who is troubled when he learns that the predatory priest who assaulted him as a child is still being allowed to work with children. He approaches the church hierarchy to address the problem, but they stonewall him. He then goes to the police to file charges, but the statute of limitations has passed.
But Alexandre’s efforts bring the situation to the attention of other men who had a similar experience. These men are inspired to come forward and speak out, which inspires yet more men to come forward. Turns out this predatory priest assaulted hundreds of boys over decades. Several complaints were lodged over the years, but if the church took any action, it was to protect the priest.
The men end up bonding, forming a combination support group and activist organization in search of justice.
Cool, subtle, and effective
In a staunchly Catholic country like France, it’s no surprise that these men face considerable emotional blowback from embarrassed family members, and certain segments of society who want to keep things quiet in order to protect the church’s reputation. But the abuse survivors find the emotional support within their group that lets them persevere.
Ozon adapted his script from a real-life scandal that has been plaguing France for several years—and which is still raging to this day. While certain allowances had to be made in adapting the story into narrative form, Ozon strove to adhere to the facts of the case as much as possible.
With a subject fraught with strong emotion, Ozon nevertheless plays it cool and subtle directorially. The situation is presented matter-of-factly, and events unfold in a detached, almost documentary-like fashion. This is not to say that the film lacks emotional intensity—quite the contrary. This is definitely one of those situations where less is more.
Fighting for the future
Ozon has assembled an excellent cast, portraying men who have dealt—and are still dealing—with their trauma in different ways with varying degrees of success. They are all seeking some form of emotional closure, struggling to hold on to their stability as they seek justice. These are not victims—these are survivors.
Since this film is based on true events that are still unfolding, certain issues remain unresolved. But we learn that these brave men do achieve some measure of justice and closure.
But what we do not get is any assurance that the overriding issue of priests preying on children is even close to being resolved. All we can do is take a lesson from the men portrayed in By the Grace of God, which is a phenomenally effective and affecting film. We learn that speaking out and fighting back can be an important path to recovery for survivors, and is the best way to protect today’s children from future predation.
What, When, Where
By the Grace of God, written and directed by François Ozon (in French and English with subtitles), opens on November 8 at Ritz at the Bourse.