This film could be set in a political, educational, religious, or any other setting that is built upon a hierarchal ladder; the environment doesn’t matter, as the story’s message is still the same. Based upon the true events from the 2019 conviction of Cardinal Phillipe Barbarin of Lyon for hiding the crimes of Father Bernard Preynat – sexual abuse of multiple children he taught at the Catholic Church – Ozon has no limitations or restrictions in exploring the effects of these injustices through his characters. Told primarily through three (now adult) victims through dialogue-heavy and information-laden scenes, narratively told one after another as they seek justice for themselves, gradually finding each other and creating a powerful network of people from a variety of backgrounds that had all fallen under Preynat’s shadow as children. The film begins in the midst of Alexandre’s (Melvil Poupaud) efforts in probing the Catholic Church via letters to-and-from Cardinal Babarin (François Mathouret) to find out why his childhood abuser, Father Preynat (Bernard Verley), is still teaching children. In his increasingly-burdensome one-man campaign against the seemingly impenetrable force of the Church, slowly the face of Preynat begins to fall and truths are uncovered and bought to light as more victims come forward, with strong focus on two – François (Denis Ménochet) and Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud). There is no one story to tell, of one crime or one victim or one level or severity of injustice. Through fictional suffering there is an entire truth and reality laid out and explained to the audience. No all-encompassing solution is found, but an understanding of coping methods and the release of internal pain through solidarity in community.
Ozon’s message is a powerful one, and the most direct it’s been out of his past films. As a director, he has told his previous narratives through metaphors and fables, symbolic images and formal techniques. In the House (2012) and Swimming Pool (2003) are what come to mind when I think of Ozon’s narratively and visually unique work, and By the Grace of God is still, objectively, a clear and conscientious piece of filmmaking in the sense of imagery. However, Ozon understands – and by default, makes the audience understand – that the story being told in this latest feature must be respected and chronicled in the starkest most truthful way that it necessitates; more so due to the fact that the criminal here is a real-life person, even using the real names of Barbarin and Preynat and keeping the environment the same. The Catholic Church is a solid and powerful hierarchy, and the abuse of vulnerable children entrusted to this hierarchy is portrayed in this film in all its severity. No formal elements distract from the seriousness, and the dialogue-heavy way of storytelling enforces what the characters themselves learn throughout the film – communication is the way to justice.
The formality of the film is clean and acts as a solid foundation to explore the story’s core ideas. An onerous and existent subject is laid out stark and clear, not visually explicit but fully and understandably present. The words and the expressions of each character convey the fundamentals of their pain, stripped down as they go head-to-head, citizen to institution, emotion and morality against law and limitations, just to fight for the justice they deserve even years after the abuse took place. The reason this film stands out to me amongst others that share its difficult subject matter, and a reason that is reinforced in the final scene, is the way the film shows the victims as individuals, with individual suffering, coming together as a group that teaches its members how to cope as individuals. Yes, they act as one within the system of law to achieve legal justice in fighting to imprison Preynat and other offenders, but each person learns what they themselves must do in order to heal afterwards. Their own coping mechanisms were different, and their own path to heal is different, and becoming a group is almost the middle-ground to allow them to realise that. I appreciated that sense of individuality amongst a community, wherein the person is still a part of that group but they are not the same. This doesn’t take away the significance of what happened to them as one singular being nor what they mean as a conglomerate. Ozon conveys the importance of them together and of them apart. What they achieve as a group is just as necessary as what they achieve alone; what they accomplish as a group is a success within a legal system – the only system in which they can navigate within the limits of their society – but what they achieve in themselves is an understanding of how they survive further than that. To reach justice in the legal sense is only one-step; a crime is not without its emotional partner, an action’s definition is not divorced from the human spirit, and this reality has never been conveyed to me in the way By the Grace of God manages to. Whether familiar with Ozon’s work or not, this film is important in understanding the correct approach in conveying information in a truthful way.