Silence is a core part of the Catholic faith. Christians believe that by emptying your mind of all other thoughts apart from faith, it is a tool to get closer to God. But silence is a double-edged sword: for all those it helps, it binds others to secrecy, allowing systemic problems to fester. Now the Catholic Church, racked by thousands of sexual abuse allegations, must reckon with the culture of silence that has allowed these crimes to happen.
By The Grace of God, which functions something like a French version of Spotlight, looks at the highest profile sexual assault case in the country. The results are both stirring and dispiriting, an epic survey of the wide-ranging effects of pedophilia within the Catholic Church. Spanning over two hours and focusing almost equally on three victims, its an epic tale of testimony that asserts itself as one of the most important films of the year so far. Who knew Francois Ozon, patron saint of erotic thrillers, had something so important and stately in him?
We start with Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud). Molested in the 80s when he was away at scout camp, he finally decides to confront the Church about their horrific behaviour, writing endless emails to the resident therapist at his Lyon Diocese. She eventually arranges a meeting with his abuser, Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), who nakedly admits to his horrible behaviour while astonishingly playing the victim himself. He doesn’t even ask for forgiveness. Alexandre then requests an interview with Archbishop Philippe Barbarin (François Marthouret), the man who confirms his own sons. These emails are read out to us as Alexandre goes about his life, showing us the keen difference between the Church’s words and its actions. Once Alexandre confronts the reality that Preynat will not be defrocked, and is still working with children, he reluctantly files a complaint with the police.
From there the indignities snowball, uncovering hundreds of men who have been molested and orally raped by the priest. The screenplay is a wonder in itself, changing perspective to two very different men while never losing sight of the bigger picture. This is bold filmmaking, supported by brisk editing and a intelligent approach to depicting sexual trauma.
Everyone responds to sexual abuse differently. While some remain in the Church, others have apostatised. While others are willing to go on the record and become leaders of the cause, others do not want to talk for fear of bringing up bad memories. All of these responses are valid, By The Grace of God expertly displaying the nuances of trauma. This is no pat Oscar bait, but a serious inquisition into the reality of living with sexual abuse. Ozon doesn’t judge or editorialise, increasing the emotional effect of this movie, its epic testimony acting as a giant work of investigative journalism in its own right.
Every one of these men is a hero, and it is their story to tell. Wisely, By The Grace of God focuses little on the interior psychology of Preynat. You should not rationalise or explain these actions. You should only seek justice for their effects. And this is where the law is up against the vast power of the Church, ranging all the way from Boston (home of Spotlight) to Benedictine Monasteries in England to the upper echelons of the Vatican itself. With the decision against Barbarin to be declared on March 7 (there is no court date for Preynat), it’s hard to say whether or not these men will find the justice they seek. Yet regardless of the decision, it declares that the culture of silence must be abolished. In that respect, its gripping, urgent filmmaking. Let’s hope the Catholic Church pays heed.