Urgent And Incisive, BY THE GRACE OF GOD (GRÂCE À DIEU) Gives Voice To The Victims Of Abuse In The Catholic Church
In Lyon, Alexandre Guérin learns that the priest who had abused him as a child is still working with children in the Catholic Church. Alexandre embarks on a journey to seek justice against the priest and is soon joined by other victims of the priest, including François Debord and Emmanuel Thomassin, to “lift the burden of silence” around their ordeal. However, their fight is not as straightforward as it seems.
Director: François Ozon
Cast: Melvil Poupaud, Denis Ménochet, Swann Arlaud, François Marthouret, Bernard Verley
Country: France, Belgium
Runtime: 137 mins
“Do you still believe in God?” asks Alexandre’s son in the film’s closing. This question persists beneath the tension throughout the film, where it probes at other complexities: How do the abused reconcile their religious faith with the institution that upholds it? Should the devout offer forgiveness to their abuser, or seek justice for the crimes that have been done to them? And most controversially, is it even possible to still have faith in God while condemning the Church?
The film is based on true events, chronicling the actual facts of the case. The three main characters themselves are inspired by their real-life counterparts, though there have been tweaks to their characteristics to fit the film’s narrative storytelling. To distinguish these characters from the actual victims, their last names have been changed.
In a docudrama style of storytelling, By The Grace Of God follows a no-nonsense approach when chronicling the very true stories of the victims that have been betrayed by the institution that’s meant to protect them. The film opens with Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupaud), a seemingly put-together, successful banker whose sleek and calm demeanour immediately falls apart upon reading a newspaper headline that his abuser, Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley) is still working with children.
However refreshing it might be to watch the interactions between Alexandre and the Church officials play out in a series of increasingly fraught letters — especially when the actors narrate the actual words exchanged by the victims and the Church officials verbatim — this epistolary aspect in the film’s first act gets a little heavy and tedious after a while. However, this is saved by Melvil’s immaculate portrayal of Alexandre, where the flickers of emotion that cross over his otherwise stoic countenance speak volumes about how much he is affected by the Church’s lack of tangible action towards Preynat.
The film picks up when it shifts the spotlight to Preynat’s other victims, namely François Debord (Denis Ménochet) — who, unlike Alexandre, has become an atheist following Preynat’s abuse — and Emmanuel Thomassin (Swann Arlaud), who unlike his counterparts, has trouble living with his trauma. These characters come from different backgrounds, and they had experienced varying degrees of assault and have different levels of support from the people around them.
Together, these characters weave a fuller picture of how the lives of Preynat’s victims have been affected by his wrongdoings, and they eventually form an association, fronted by François, to fight against this injustice — titled ‘Lift The Burden Of Silence’ (La Parole Libérée).
As a film carried by the stories of its characters, the three main actors — Melvil, Denis and Swann — handle the intensity and nuances in their characters with ease. Melvil portrays a man with a seemingly perfect life, whose cracks in demeanour is treated with precision and intricacy by its actor; Denis on the other hand plays François believably as a character fuelled by his impassioned desire to bring his abuser to justice, and who will stop at nothing to achieve his cause; and Swann draws our sympathy with Emmanuel, whose deep-rooted rage and indignation at the world brims at the surface, especially in his tumultuous interactions with his girlfriend. Through their portrayals of their characters, we are able to understand the stories of those who have been hurt by a system which has oppressed them for so long.
What I appreciated most about the film is that it doesn’t sensationalise these events, even though it may be easy to do so to pull at the audience’s heartstrings. Instead, it gets straight to the point and tells their stories in a matter-of-fact manner, without pointlessly stirring up emotions or dramatising things.
Aside from the flashback sequences where sound design helps foreshadow the tension that underlies otherwise innocuous scenes — such as when Church boys go for prayers or confessions — there is minimal music throughout the entire film. This lack of music background helps to ground the film, and makes the rare but compelling emotional outbursts by its characters all the more gripping and heartrending.
By The Grace Of God tackles the real-life story of a case that is still ongoing today, and at the time of the film’s completion, Preynat’s trial had not yet come to a close. While the results to his trial are now out, By The Grace Of God remains as an incisive piece that would bring about tangible change for those whose lives are still being weighed down by the burden of silence. And in questioning the institutions that are complicit in their crimes, perhaps the film might inspire others to take the torch in reclaiming their lives back from their abusers.
By The Grace Of God, brought to local shores by the Singapore Film Society and Alliance Française de Singapour, will be screening on 12 September and 17 September. The screening on 17 September will be followed by a live Q&A session with François Devaux, president of the association ‘Lift The Burden Of Silence’ (La Parole Libérée).
Meanwhile, this is the trailer:
Photo credits: Singapore Film Society & Alliance Française de Singapour