By the Grace of God is not the kind of film you expect from French director Francois Ozon, no matter how prolific he may be. Most of his films are focused on women, whether they are erotically eerie (Swimming Pool, Under the Sand, Jeune et Jolie), insouciantly bitchy (8 Women), gloriously melodramatic (Angel, Frantz) or simply wacko (Ricky, Potiche). By the Grace of God, by contrast, is all about damaged, angry men – men who were only little boys when they were abused by one Father Bernard Preynat, a popular priest in the Catholic diocese of Lyon.
Ozon has given himself the freedom to tell their story as fiction but, as a title at the beginning tells us, By the Grace of God is “based on real facts”. A succession of cardinals – including the current incumbent, Philippe Barbarin – helped to cover Preynat’s tracks. Then one of his victims took his story to the police. Another two started a lobby group known in English as Lift the Burden of Silence. They joined forces and started telling their stories in public, which brought so many former Catholic cub scouts and choir boys out of the woodwork it now seems that Preynat may have abused literally hundreds of children.
Last year, Ozon revealed that he had first thought of making a documentary about the Preynat case. He approached Alexandre Dussot-Hezez, who was the first to pursue his abuser, to ask him if he would be willing to become its subject. Dussot-Hezez agreed, but insisted he should make a fiction. In the film, he is called Alexandre Guerin, a conservative Catholic banker and father of five children played by Ozon regular Melvil Poupaud. “Then I met him,” says Ozon. “And he gave me all the material he had collected. At that point, my film shifted from the portrait of one man to an ensemble piece.”
By the Grace of God is powerful but modestly proportioned; Ozon takes a quick, clean approach that wastes no time on scene-setting. From the first frame, he launches into the detailed push and pull of Alexandre’s initial attempt to get some sort of assurance from the diocese that Preynat will be brought to book. There is a succession of shelved meetings, unanswered letters and fudged promises; Ozon carves through this bureaucratic fog like a fighter pilot. The actors are also on fast-forward, sometimes sounding as if they’re in a Gallic The West Wing. “I tried to avoid letting the film slip into pathos, because I was very respectful of the people involved,” says Ozon. “As one says in the film, they want to give their testimony and that’s it. They don’t want to be labelled as victims.”