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New Release Review - BY THE GRACE OF GOD

by the grace of god review
A group of men rally together to expose the priest who molested them as children.


Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: François Ozon

Starring: Melvil Poupaud, Denis Ménochet, Swann Arlaud, Éric Caravaca, François Marthouret, Bernard Verley

by the grace of god poster




Much like America's Steven Soderbergh and Britain's Michael Winterbottom, France's François Ozon has managed to put out movies at the prolific rate of a journeyman while maintaining his auteur credentials. With his latest, the Catholic abuse drama By the Grace of God, there's too much of Ozon the journeyman and not enough of Ozon the auteur, as the filmmaker delivers a blandly constructed and talky film that has more in common with a piece of prestige TV than the work of a director known for channelling the spirit of Hitchcock and De Palma.

by the grace of god review

Based on an ongoing real life case, By the Grace of God follows four men as they rally together to expose Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), the now elderly priest who abused them on scouting trips in the '80s and '90s. The story begins with Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), whose comfortable upper middle class life is disrupted when he runs into another man who was on one of those fateful trips. Stirred by his memories of abuse, Alexandre investigates and is shocked to learn that Preynat has returned to Lyon, and is still working with children. Alexandre contacts the region's Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret), who initially appears sympathetic but soon reveals his unwillingness to plunge the Catholic Church into further scandal.

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - Non-Fiction ]

Alexandre begins a quest to unearth more victims who are willing to give their accounts of Preynat's behaviour. After some encounters with victims unwilling to relive their experiences in public, Alexandre finds François (Denis Ménochet), a victim whose atheism and hatred of the Church makes him all too willing to go over Preynat. They're soon joined by two other men - Gilles (Éric Caravaca), and the most tragic case of all, Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), an autistic man whose abuse has fuelled his own violent treatment of his wife. Together they begin a grass roots campaign to take on the Church and seek justice for Preynat's crimes.

by the grace of god review

Given its subject matter, you might expect By the Grace of God to be far from an easy watch, but ultimately it's the lack of humanity in the storytelling that makes Ozon's 135 minute film such an endurance test. It may assemble four men and purport to tell their stories, but it does so all too literally, with each man sitting down and recounting the details of the abuse they suffered. This would be fine for a talking heads documentary, but a narrative feature requires more for us to chew on in terms of character development. Aside from Emmanuel's aggressive domestic relationship, we never really get a glimpse of the lives of these men outside of their campaign, and they're defined merely by their stations in life.

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - Official Secrets ]

Instead, Ozon focusses on the procedural element of his story, but it lacks the investigative hook of the similarly themed Spotlight. Ozon foregoes that film's shoe leather, instead delivering us after the fact plot developments through phone calls and police interviews. It creates the sense that there's a more interesting film playing out off screen, in the background among the four men's lawyers, the police, the clergy, and the parents who turned the other cheek when their children alerted them to the abuse they were suffering.

by the grace of god review

There are some interesting moments in Ozon's film, such as the disparate attitudes towards the church by its victims, some of whom want to burn the Vatican to the ground while others have clung onto their faith, but it's an element that's largely left unexplored. By the Grace of God's biggest issue is in how uncinematic its storytelling is, its narrative relying far too heavily on epistolary correspondence rendered in voiceover between Alexandre and Barbarin. I get the impression that like so many filmmakers have before him, Ozon is worried that any cinematic flair might overshadow the serious subject matter, but plenty of movies have managed to explore serious themes in cinematic fashion - De Palma's Casualties of War, Spielberg's Schindler's List and McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, for example. In spite of its verbosity, By the Grace of God opens and closes with an image that speaks volumes - that of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, which stands atop a hill looking down over the city of Lyon, a symbol of how the Catholic Church views its place in society.

By the Grace of God is in UK/ROI cinemas October 25th.




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