A psychologically complex drama with an impressive narrative structure that pits several men against a centuries-old institution, in what is a riveting based-on-a-true-story take on paedophilia and the Church.
Dir. Francois Ozon
2019 | France | Drama | 137 mins | 1.85:1 | French
NC16 (passed clean) for mature content and some nudity
Cast: Melvil Poupaud, Denis Ménochet, Swann Arlaud
Plot: Three men band together to dismantle the code of silence that continues to protect a priest who abused them decades ago.
Awards: Won Silver Bear for Grand Jury Prize (Berlin)
International Sales: Playtime
Subject Matter: Slightly Mature
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed at Alliance Francaise)
What struck me about Francois Ozon’s new film is how seamless its narrative structure is. It is a complex work with multiple characters, yet the film flows so naturally—and effortlessly—that even when a main character becomes peripheral, he is never sidelined.
And this is essentially how By the Grace of God works—it brings three separate strangers to the fore, one after another, telling each of their back stories and developing their present relationships with their loved ones and families.
These three men, by turns separate, in binary or altogether, are unified under a larger narrative—that they had been sexually abused by the same priest when they were kids.
In a film about the individual against a centuries-old institution, Ozon’s approach suggests that while people in power may dictate their own and other people’s personal narratives, the disenfranchised need a grander one to resist being silenced.
Some might draw comparisons between By the Grace of God and the Best Picture Oscar winner, Spotlight (2015), with both covering similar themes, but the latter works more as a journalistic procedural-cum-thriller. Ozon, however, has a different approach—he takes on the perspectives of the victims who are now adults some 20 or 30 years later.
The performances are excellent, particularly Swann Arlaud’s, who plays a character who had been terribly scarred. The other two main characters are played by Melvil Poupard (most famous for his lead role in Laurence Anyways (2012)) and Denis Menochet (whom I last saw in the frightening Custody (2017)).
In Poupard’s character’s segment which sees out the bulk of the film’s first hour, Ozon does something quite bold—he tells the character’s present circumstance and back story through a series of never-ending email exchanges that are efficiently narrated over the visuals, giving the film a ‘flowing’ quality.
I feel that this is one of Ozon’s most mature works, and he gives due weight to the serious subject matter by exploring taboos and traumas with psychological depth.
Loosely based on a true story, By the Grace of God is not just a riveting take on paedophilia and the Church, but it also asks something that is likely to confound: can someone who has been blessed to do God’s work be forgiven even in the gravest of transgressions?
This is a deep and powerful work that needs to be seen, no matter which faith you subscribe to.