Netflix UK film review: By the Grace of God
Ivan Radford | On 25, Oct 2019
Director: François Ozon
Cast: Melville Poupaud, Denis Ménochet, Swann Arlaud
Watch By the Grace of God online in the UK: Netflix UK / Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play
From thrillers and comedies to break-ups and Hitchcockian romance, François Ozon is one of France’s most interesting and diverse directors. Often playful and always laced with wit, his films jump from one genre to the next. His latest, though, is something strikingly different to the norm, as he turns his shrewd gaze one upon abuse within the Catholic church.
It’s a straight, serious, sombre gaze that pierces the issue with a restraint that might surprise some – given that the real case the movie tackles is ongoing, it’s perhaps indicative of how delicate these waters can be to navigate. That restraint, though, shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of conviction: Ozon’s stare is unblinking and fuelled by a moral urgency that builds momentum over three compassionate, thoughtfully constructed acts.
We’re first introduced to Alexandre (a moving, understated Melville Poupaud), a banker who is happily married – until he realised that Father Preynat (Bernard Verley), who abused him as a child, has returned to his home town of Lyon and still working with children. He does what he thinks is right: he contacts Cardinal Philippe Barbarin (François Marthouret) and speaks to a therapist. She arranges a meeting between them, which he hopes will be healing, but when Preynat avoids asking for forgiveness, and Barbarin shows no sign of taking any action, Alexandre begins to realise that even if Preynat shows remorse, retribution and wider recognition is not on the cards.
Alexandre continues his pursuit of justice, recruiting fellow victim François (a fierce Denis Ménochet), a campaigner who doesn’t shy from the public eye in his own quest to take down the church. The result is a superbly performed ensemble piece that takes the time to understand and exorcise each player’s trauma; while Alexandre remains a devout Catholic, wanting to cleanse the church for its own good, François has become an ardent atheist, but both share the pain of what they have been through.
Ozon uses that cumulative weight of trauma to drive his story; by the time they’re joined by Emmanuel Thomassin (an intense Swann Arlau), an epileptic who was also abused by Preynat, there’s a relentless, gripping momentum to events. The emotional stakes, and narrative pace, keep building towards the jaw-dropping source of the film’s title – a press conference in which a Freudian slip makes it easy to see why Ozon has taken up this cause.
That passion is manifested in the unflashy intimacy Ozob employs, creating a rare documentary-like tone. The focus on the victims, rather than the investigation, distinguishes the piece from the similarly harrowing Spotlight; this timely portrait of individual resistance and institutional shame thrums with sensitivity and respect, without losing its sense of urgency.
By the Grace of God is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.