The abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church haunt us, and not just in the United States. No nation with Catholic churches has been spared. True, the worst of the actual crisis – of priests sexually abusing little boys, teens, and young men – appears to be all but over. But have the right lessons been learned? Is the storm over? Or are we simply in the eye of the hurricane?
I have no answer, but Pope Benedict XVI tried to give one in 2005 in his instructions concerning seminary education. We may hope those guidelines are being effectively implemented.
Yet we continue to witness ongoing struggles by victims for justice . . . and more attempts by bishops to avoid accountability, which is why French director François Ozon’s new film, By the Grace of God, remains timely and important.
The virtue of the film is its emphasis on victims, unlike Tom McCarthy’s Oscar-winning American film, Spotlight (2015), where the focus was on the reporters who blew up the sex-abuse cover-up by the Archdiocese of Boston.
Mr. Ozon, noted in France for films sensitive to women (known as cinema du corps or “cinema of the body,” including 8 Femmes and Swimming Pool) started out to make a documentary, then realized the story of the victims of a serially abusing priest, Fr. Bernard Preynat (played by Bernard Verley in the movie’s best performance) and the cover-up by Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, Archbishop of Lyon (François Marthouret), demanded the more dramatic, character-driven narrative of a “based-upon-actual-events” dramatic film.
It’s also what the victims wanted, as Ozon explains:
They imagined a film in the spirit of Spotlight where they’d become fictional characters played by famous actors. So I thought: This is what they want from me, and this is what I know how to do.
The story unfolds as Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupaud) begins coming to terms with the abuse he suffered years before at the hands of Fr. Preynat. Believing in the integrity of Cardinal Barbarin, he writes to the archbishop, who agrees to set up a face-to-face meeting with Alexandre, the (now) old priest, and an archdiocesan employee, Régine Maire (Martine Erhel). Alexandre, his wife, and a few friends with whom he has shared news of the meeting all expect Preynat to obfuscate, if not to deny everything. But he doesn’t.
The shocked but encouraged Alexandre asks Preynat to make his confession public.
“Honestly,” the priest says, “I’d rather avoid the outbursts or physical attacks it might provoke,” explaining that a few years earlier he’s been attacked in the garden of his country house by “violent, hysterical” parents.
Alexandre says, “You abused their children.”
“Yes,” the old priest says, “but that’s no reason to be violent!”
Alexandre is sure now that Preynat will be laicized; still believes Cardinal Barbarin is a brave and honest man. But when the cardinal grants him what can only be called an audience, Barbarin demurs on action against Preynat. Alexandre cannot understand why the archbishop would allow a pedophile to continue in ministry.
“Please don’t use that expression,” the Cardinal says stiffly.
Because, Barbarin says, “in the etymological sense, pedophile means ‘to love children.’”
He asks Alexandre to be patient and reminds him that Pope Francis has urged Cardinals to “bravely face this evil.” Then eerily echoing Alexandre’s earlier judgment of him, Barbarin says, “I will be brave.”
But Alexandre now doubts the promises, especially after he learns that Barbarin and Preynat are old friends. He is further discouraged in yet another meeting with an archdiocesan official, a priest, who acknowledges Preynat’s “crimes,” but says bluntly he’ll not be defrocked: “Why dig up these old stories?”
So, Alexandre begins organizing other victims into a group they call La Parole Libérée, literally, “the liberated word” but translated by them in English as Lift the Burden.
The title of the film comes from a press conference Barbarin gave in 2016 at which, in response to a reporter’s question about the extent of the crisis in Lyon, he replied, “Most of the facts, by the grace of God, are outside the statute of limitations.” [Italics added.]
In other words: If the civil law does not require us to answer, we won’t.
There are scenes in By the Grace of God reminiscent of Spotlight. In my review of that earlier movie, I wrote:
There’s a scene near film’s end in which [a] reporter. . .stands in the back of a church as a children’s choir sings a carol at Christmas. The church is beautiful, the kids are beautiful, and the music is beautiful. . . . [I felt] joy because of its essential beauty, the beauty of the Catholic faith, but also . . . sadness because of the betrayal of priests and bishops who failed to respond to widespread criminality with anything like Christian compassion, settling instead for Catholic careerism.
There’s an almost identical scene in By the Grace of God, and – as in Spotlight – it breaks your heart.
By the Grace of God is a bit repetitive by virtue of its attention not just to Alexandre’s story but to those of three other men as well. And the ending fizzles when it might have sizzled in a drawn-out dinner conversation among the principals of Lift the Burden. An unnecessary coda.
Bernard Preynat abused no fewer than seventy boys and was finally defrocked in July of this year. He truly was, as one victim calls him, the “Preynator.” Earlier in 2019, Cardinal Barbarin was civilly tried and found guilty of failing to report sexual abuse and given a six-month suspended prison sentence. Pope Francis has refused to accept his resignation.
In the film’s final moment, one of Alexandre’s sons has come home from a night out and asks how that “Lift the Burden” dinner went: tense but good, his father says. They were celebrating their award as Lyon’s citizens of the year. “You know who won it last year?” he asks his son. “No,” the young man replies. The answer: Barbarin.
As of this writing, MPAA has not rated By the Grace of God. Best guess: R, for strong language, a gratuitous moment of post-coital nudity, and . . . a glimpse of photos of a man’s penis. With additional fine performances by Denis Ménochet, Gilles Perret, and, especially, Swann Arlaud. A listing of theaters showing the film may be found at the website of Music Box Films.