François Ozon’s latest film follows three men and their families as they seek justice against the priest who molested them, who is still permitted to work with children. Frustrated by the response of the church they find themselves considering how far they are willing to go to find justice, all whilst enduring stigma and judgement from their family and neighbours.
The film shifts narrative three times through, each time exploring a different individual affected by the abuse. First a family man with everything to lose, then a radical who organises an advocacy group and finally a frail man who has perhaps been most affected. We explore the lives of these men, and occasionally there are some strange tangents. Twice there is a subplot about the wives becoming jealous of the attention the men receive from female journalists. This may well serve to contrast two of the wives, but it feels like a strange aside.
Otherwise the film is completely focused on the men, their pain and their quest to be heard. The strength demonstrated by the Catholic church in this film is different from that seen in Spotlight. Although the litigious and well-connected side does come out, what’s fascinating here is the first line of defence, the kindness offensive. As the characters pursue some form of resolution they are placated and very gently dismissed by all in power. With smiles and handshakes and very polite letters a wall is put around the incident and the victims are encouraged to forgive their attackers and move on.
The pace of the film creates a building sense of frustration with the process. The drawn out and humiliating lengths that is required to punish a man who at no point denies what he is, is tragically believable. The mechanisms of appeal and re-appeal are fascinating, as is the insight into the French justice system.
Another interesting theme of the film is that of faith beyond the church. The film is heavily critical of the local institutions that cover up the abuse, though there are references to the progress the global church has made. However two of the men retain their faith, and struggle with condemning their own church even after their betrayal. With so many people feeling that the backlash against this institutional abuse constitutes an attack on their own personal faith, this is a very pertinent issue to be exploring.
Ozon also explores the impact of the abuse on family. Each of the men has a different relationship with their family. The abuse drives them apart, brings them together or leaves deep tensions that lie dormant and strike without warning. It’s a beautiful study of these families and the strength each man draws from their support network, even if it’s just a single family member who never gave up on them. The response and culpability of the parents is explored, and the answer, that everyone placed their trust in these abusers, is tragic as always.
By the Grace of God is a marvellous and only very occasionally meandering study of the impact of abuse. It’s superbly acted, subtly stylish and very urgent. It’s an understated but provocatively honest drama that never loses focus on the victims and their struggle.