François Ozon has often expressed his admiration for Alfred Hitchcock, and in style and content his films have frequently paid homage to Hitch’s work. In that vein his newest, “By the Grace of God,” invites comparison to “The Wrong Man,” that change of pace picture in which Hitchcock set aside his usual imaginative flamboyance to present a straightforward, low-key recreation of a real incident. Ozon’s subject is the pedophilia scandal that rocked the diocese of Lyon beginning in 2014, when a priest was accused of having molested boys years earlier and diocesan officials were charged with having protected him and covered up his crimes. As Hitchcock did with his story of a man mistakenly charged with robbery, he presents the sad tale in a rigorously literal fashion, relying on documents and contemporary accounts and sticking to the known facts as much as possible; the level of scrupulousness in both instances is impressive.
“By the Grace of God” will also be compared with the Oscar-winning “Spotlight,” about the uncovering of pedophilia among the Catholic clergy of Boston. But while Tom McCarthy’s film focused on the work of the intrepid journalists who assiduously followed up leads that led to public outrage against what the “servants of God” had done, Ozon concentrates on the victims of Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), who was kept in contact with children by his superiors, down to present-day Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret). The journalists here are either reluctant to publish, or merely follow up on the victims’ efforts to uncover the truth.
To that end Ozon’s treatment becomes essentially a triptych of suffering. The first part concentrates on Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), a committed Catholic and devoted family man whose painful memories lead him to approach church authorities and request internal action against Preynat. Only after he gets what amounts to a runaround from Barbarin does he take his complaint to the police despite the fact that the statute of limitations has passed.
The police investigation leads to burly François (Denis Ménochet), an avowed atheist whose parents complained to the diocese about Preynat years before. Initially disinclined to become involved, he changes his mind and becomes the centerpiece of a victims’ rights organization La Parole Libérée, enlisting others in his effort to seek justice and establishing a website to publicize their work. He and Alexandre join forces despite their very different personalities and approaches, with Gilles (Éric Caravaca), a calm doctor, often having to intervene to bridge the gap between them.
One of those convinced to come forward by the group’s campaign is Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), who has been severely damaged by the priestly abuse. He becomes the focus of the film’s last chapter, finally reaching a modicum of stability in his life through his commitment to the group’s work. His mother, who feels guilt over her failure to intervene for her son, also gives herself over to the work.
The organization achieves some success by the close of the film, but as the final caption cards note, the case is far from fully resolved. Indeed, some of the individuals depicted by Ozon—including Preynat—used the courts in an attempt to prevent the picture’s release, arguing that it would prejudice their right to a fair trial.
With a film like “By the Grace of God,” it’s never possible to know where the facts leave off and a degree of fictionalization takes over. The basic events—dates and messages—as well as the scenes directly based on them can be taken as accurate, of course, but apart from the necessity of compression one must assume that the intimate, domestic scenes among the victims and their families are reconstructed with considerable freedom (the surnames have been changed), as must have been the flashbacks the victims have to their encounters with Preynat and the sequences within diocesan offices.
With that understanding, however, the film has the feel of authenticity, and the same sort of underlying sense of righteous indignation that animated “Spotlight.” The performances, while not flashy (Ménochet is certainly the most the most histrionic of them, as demanded by his rather volatile character, and Arlaud also works at a high emotional level), all have a ring of truth about them, and Ozon and his technical team—including cinematographer Manu Dacosse and editor Laure Gardette—eschew virtuoso camera tricks while keeping the visuals from sinking into blandness.
“By the Grace of God” may not be typical Ozon any more than “The Wrong Man” was typical Hitchcock, but it tells a powerful tale of ecclesiastical misconduct with the gravity it deserves, without sensationalism or sermonizing.