By the Grace of God (★★☆☆☆), the latest cinematic provocation by out French filmmaker François Ozon, was awarded the coveted Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, heralding a powerful, fact-based account of three adult male sex abuse survivors who band together to seek justice against the priest who stole their innocence as impressionable boy scouts.
But in light of the movie’s less than powerful effect, the early acclaim might actually suggest that esteemed European festival juries can be just as susceptible to bourgeois, issue-driven drama as other, more famous awards voting bodies.
The well-crafted Grace does reflect the Swimming Pool and Time to Leave writer-director’s usual frank, sophisticated approach to sexuality and dysfunction, but drained of wit and vitality. Apropos of the devastating subject matter, Ozon applies a deadly serious hand to this timely saga of 40-year old family man Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), who launches a legal case that inspires other abuse survivors to stand up to the church and have their truth heard. Poupaud holds the stable center of the ensemble tale, with his compelling turn as a proud, faithful Catholic forced to find the language to pour out his soul — to his wife and sons, to a church psychologist and the diocese leadership, and to the media and the police.
A fictional story based on actual events, By the Grace of God accomplishes the significant feat of articulating how important it is for victims and anyone who cares about them to find the words for these necessary, though extremely uncomfortable conversations. For better and for worse, that leads to what feels like hours of uncomfortable conversations, as Alexandre and fellow survivors François (Denis Ménochet), Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), and Gilles (Éric Caravaca) form a network of survivors bound by their efforts to see abuser Father Preynat (Bernard Verley) finally punished for his horrendous crimes.
The group’s quest proceeds methodically, at a monotonous pace of suggestive flashbacks, uptight family dinners, and talky survivor meetups to craft press releases and content for their survivors’ group webpage. Of such process-oriented scenes, enthralling drama is not made. What should feel stirring starts to feel mundane. The performances are generally good, though, and Ozon does inject jolts of explosive emotion into the film’s final act, particularly in a riveting interrogation of a broken-looking Father Preynat as he comes face-to-face with one of his victims. The movie finds true grace in those moments, too few and far between, that the poignant story soars despite the heaviness of its obvious message.
By the Grace of God is rated R, and opens October 25 at Landmark’s E Street Cinemas. Visit www.landmarktheatres.com/washington-d-c.