It often seems a little grandiose when a film is proclaimed to have made a real impact outside of the cinematic world, but such garlands can be legitimately awarded to Francois Ozon’s By the Grace of God. The French provocateur’s deadly serious look at the paedophilic crimes of Lyon-based priest Bernard Preynat has sent shockwaves through the Catholic church and made a genuine impact in the real case against Preynat. It’s a mightily impressive achievement, one that elevates By the Grace of God, which is otherwise a slightly dry offering, powerfully acted but so focused on the facts that it sometimes lacks dramatic push.
Splitting its time between three of Preynat’s victims, By the Grace of God follows the gradual build of the case against the priest, as more and more men begin to speak out about the abuse they suffered. At the forefront is Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), a successful family man who retains his commitment to Catholicism, but is spurred into action upon seeing that Preynat is still working with children, decades after Alexandre’s abuse. Following him is the furious and atheistic Francois (Denis Menochet), who wishes to see the whole institution held accountable for its oversights and broken promises.
Most broken by his experiences is Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud, magnetically good), who can barely read Preynat’s name without a violent physical reaction. Ozon never generalises the abuse or its effects, every victim given an individual humanity and, boldly, Ozon also places disagreements between the men. They are united in their experiences and some of their goals, but to give them a blanket response to their trauma would be oversimplifying things, and Ozon never falls into this trap. This fierce intelligence can, though, come at the expense of emotion and immersion, making By the Grace of God feel a bit too much like a docudrama.
Ozon does away with most of his usual style which, given that a lot of his films are erotic thrillers, is the best move for this story. But he’s also proved himself, with the excellent Frantz, to be able to tell more mature and understated stories with a bit more flair than this. The story is fascinating, and Ozon makes a great choice in putting his fantastic actors front and centre, but ultimately By the Grace of God is more impressive in what it’s achieved than in the film it actually is.