Rating: (3 stars)
The first act of “By the Grace of God” seems to set up an urgent but familiar David-and-Goliath clash: Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), a solemn Catholic and devoted father of five, tells Church officials that a priest who still works with children had sexually abused him when he was a young boy. Alexandre grows increasingly frustrated at the Church’s muted response.
Midway through, though, the film by French writer-director François Ozon becomes far less tidy, its narrative unfolding in concentric circles. As new victims emerge, the movie sidelines Alexandre, focusing instead on the knottier challenges of organizing an activist movement against one of the world’s most powerful institutions.
It’s a fitting trajectory for a story drawn from an ongoing real-life scandal in the French Catholic Church. Allegations of widespread child sexual abuse have dogged the institution globally for decades. In recent years, those accusations seem to be gaining more recognition — and condemnation from within the Church itself. Still, victims are met with scrutiny and skepticism at every turn, on top of the personal anguish of wrestling with decades-old trauma.
Everyone depicted in this film has a real-life counterpart, including Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), the priest accused of abusing 70 children, and Philppe Barbarin (François Marthouret), the cardinal who’s caught between honoring victims and maintaining the status quo. To approach the grim subject matter, Ozon forgoes his trademark satirical wit and flamboyant style. A color palette of browns and grays underscores the characters’ fraying emotional fortitude, while voice-over narration supplies essential plot details via real-life email correspondence.
The movie’s first half suffers from focusing on Alexandre, a central figure who’s capably, if somewhat thinly, rendered. His efforts prompt a police investigation that eventually convinces a second victim (Denis Ménochet) to come forward — one who had previously made peace with the harm inflicted on him.
News coverage eventually makes its way to a third victim, Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud). All three men have suffered, but for Emmanuel, the pain remains acute: his family and relationships are a shambles, and his physical and sexual health remain in perilous flux. Arlaud’s vivid performance makes this character the film’s most sympathetic and stirring one.
Ozon has said the American drama “Spotlight” inspired his sober, methodical approach. The similarities between the two films are obvious, but there’s a crucial difference: While the 2015 Oscar-winner focused on investigative journalists, “By the Grace of God” is primarily concerned with the victims. The film’s emotional climax comes when the accusers confront their abuser face to face. His contrition, delivered through clenched teeth, can’t heal their pain.
The real Preynat has been defrocked and is now awaiting criminal trial. In March, Barbarin was convicted of failing to report abuse, and of slow-walking a Vatican directive to discipline Preynat.
Though he disappears from the film for much of its second half, Alexandre embodies one of the story’s central tensions: between abandoning a toxic faith community and remaining true to one’s beliefs. An opening montage contrasts Alexandre’s explanation of the abuses he endured with images of him and his smiling family attending church services.
In the movie’s final exchange, Alexandre’s teenage son asks his father if he still believes in God; he doesn’t answer. Wordless flashbacks have already shown us the origins of these men’s psychic wounds. The wheels of justice have started to turn, but the past cannot be undone.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains mature thematic material and graphic descriptions of sexual abuse of minors. In French with subtitles. 137 minutes.