For a member of the clergy to sexually violate a child is one of the most stark and cruel betrayals imaginable. That an institution would prevaricate and dissemble about these betrayals rather than take immediate, decisive action to pursue justice and provide restitution creates a greater betrayal. After years of such actions, betrayal reaches a near-unimaginable level.
And yet, we don’t have to imagine. In the Roman Catholic Church, these violations have been rife, and the stories behind them are appalling.
In “By the Grace of God,” François Ozon, one of France’s most brazen and talented directors, tells a story of a group of men in Lyon, all childhood victims of a pedophile priest. These adults find each other and form an organization to bring that priest and the church’s higher-ups who covered for him to account for their actions.
This fact-based story — one which, as we learn from the closing credits, has still not reached a conclusion — represents a break from Ozon’s usual fare. The director is known as an unpredictable genre-bender, confidently concocting erotic thrillers, anti-erotic thrillers, musicals, literary adaptations (his 2007 film, “Angel,” was an imaginative and very apt view of Elizabeth Taylor’s tricky, brilliant novel) and more. His movies are almost exclusively stylistically elaborate affairs.
This is not the case here. Ozon’s screenplay — derived from his own research, including interviews with members of the Lyon activist group Lift the Burden — consists of three profiles, so to speak, of the adult survivors of one predator.
The first, Alexandre, played with button-down precision by Melvil Poupaud, is a still-devout Catholic and family man haunted by the criminal priest’s continued activity in his church. François, played by Denis Ménochet, is a bearish atheist who first responds to a request for testimony with an emphatic “No!” But soon, the floodgates of emotion and indignation open, and he helps found the activist group. The movie then presents Emmanuel, played by Swann Arlaud, perhaps the most at-risk of the adult characters, a near-genius intellect whose abuse led to an unfulfilled, fraught adulthood.
Ozon’s approach in “By the Grace of God” is not plain, but it is straightforward. The movie is not replete with what you’d call stylistic flourishes — although when one character ascends a spiral staircase, Ozon doesn’t restrain himself from doing as he always does in this situation, which is to include an overhead shot of the structure.
And Ozon exerts his command of cinematic language throughout, in ways that are less immediately obvious. He crafts a film that is engrossing from the start, while building to something greater and more emotionally encompassing.
The director’s resourcefulness is on particular display in the scenes with Emmanuel. Having established the precarious position this character is in, Ozon’s camera practically stalks him as he speeds his motorcycle to unknown destinations or stands on the walkway of a bridge. Ozon makes you worry for the character.
“By the Grace of God” is a rarity: an important film that’s also utterly inspired.