From the Archives: By the Grace of God shows the courage required to hold power accountable

From the Archives: By the Grace of God shows the courage required to hold power accountable

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

Any immediate similarities between By The Grace of God and Spotlight are validated when, midway through the former, we see a poster for the latter hanging in an office. It’s a fair comparison, since both films are about the tremendous efforts undertaken to expose systemic child abuse within the Catholic church, but where By the Grace of God breaks further ground beyond the Best Picture winner is in the characterization of our heroes. Rather than depicting intrepid reporters doing work to expose seemingly indelible institutional rot, the film depicts the actions of a group of abuse survivors, all of whom band together independently to hold one of the oldest, most powerful entities in world history accountable for its crimes.

Based on the events surrounding the 2019 conviction of Cardinal Phillippe Barbarin of Lyon and Father Bernard Preynat, By the Grace of God could rightly be described as a procedural. Our story begins with a man named Alexadre (Melvil Poupaud) sharing his experience of childhood abuse with church officials. As a member of a devout community, Alexandre is displeased to find that the response from the church is rather passive. While they fully admit complicity in the actions of Father Preynat, who openly admits to having raped countless boys, the general consensus is that it’s all water under the bridge, and with Preynat being a harmless old man, there’s no sense in ruining he or the church’s “good” name with frivolities from the past. Alexandre, rightfully pissed, goes to the press, and soon a flood of survivors come out of the woodwork to get their accusations on record.

Francois (Denis Ménochet) takes the activist approach, arranging as many grassroots campaigns as he can in order to speak truth to power. Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), perhaps the most demonstrably damaged by Preynat’s crimes, is willing to do anything to find justice, no matter how tasteless or potentially illegal. The list grows and grows, an along with it comes support. At the same time, clashing ideologies are abound amidst the group of survivors and their respective families.


But these clashes are not the source of conflict for the film. In a lot of was it reminds me of a picture from 2017 called 120 BPM, which follows the exploits of an HIV/AIDS advocacy group in 1990s France. Both films depict the myriad ways in which activists and advocacy groups organize the actions of their movements, but neither aim to show strife within their chosen groups. Instead, these clashes are used to characterize the broad expanse of people who could become victims of a predatory system (or in the case of 120 BPM, a deadly disease in conjunction with an apathetic system). This is used in a way that is as heartening as it is disheartening. On the one hand, the rainbow of faces that represent victimhood is so vast as to instill fear in anyone. On the other, it’s a visual testament to the strength which can be conjured when different kinds of people pool together to serve good. Ya know, like a church is SUPPOSED to do.

Writer/director François Ozon (Swimming Pool) uses character to depict the many ways that it’s difficult for a victim of sexual abuse to come forward, while also championing the proper hero status which should be attributed to those brave enough to do so. It’s a nuanced portrayal of an issue which deserves a complex treatment. In addition, the filmmaking, though needfully pedestrian in execution (flair is typically incongruent with material of this nature), is often stunning in terms of photography (cinematography by Manuel Dacosse). The gaudiness of “church aesthetic” has never looked so crisply detailed, while the claustrophobic feeling of a meeting room has never felt so alien and unforgiving. Populate these environments with a group of terrific performances, and it makes for a welcoming-yet-unforgiving look into an issue that should be understood by as many people as possible.

By the Grace of God opens today at the Ritz Bourse.

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