In theatres this week from writer/director Francois Ozon and Music Box Films comes a true story of a continual fight BY THE GRACE OF GOD.
Alexandre Guerin (Melvil Poupaud) is a married father of five who is a devout Catholic. Enjoying his family holds only one part of life in secret. When Alexandre was a child, Father Bernard Preynat took away part of his childhood in a series of unspeakable acts. When he is confronted with the information that Father Preynat is still working with children, Alexandre is forced to make a decision about what to do next.
Understanding that there is a statute of limitations legally, he goes directly to Cardinal Barbarin (Francois Marthouret) with his story. Listening patiently, the Cardinal sends him to speak with Regine Marie (Martine Erhel) who sets up a meeting with Father Preynat (Bernard Verley). Worried how he is going to handle the situation, wife Marie (Aurelia Petit) is supportive knowing it’s also time to tell his older sons.
During the meeting with Regine Maire and Father Preynat, Alexandre feels every panic emotion possible as the priest admits he has a problem and that he suffers. It is the “he suffers” that sends Alexandre into a tailspin and more emails to the Cardinal. Both Alexandre and Marie are starting to feel as if they are being placated instead of serious action being taken, especially when Father Preynat shows up in their church.
That is when Alexandre decides to file charges which does something he could not have expected. As he looks for more victims (and finds them), he also comes to meet Francois Debord (Denis Menochet). Francois is a man who has always had the support of his parents as they tried to do everything they could informing the church of Father Preynat which came to nothing.
At first Francois isn’t interested in being part of anything to do with it, but when he and wife Odile (Helene Vincent) research they discover that Preynat has been working with children ever since. Finding the emotional strength, his righteous anger leads him to staying silent no longer.
Filing his own charges, Francois also begins looking for victims and helps to creates the Lift the Burden of Silence. Believing that the police and the church aren’t going to much in the way of helping, the newly formed group take it step by step to get the word out through a media campaign. Hearing about it is Emmanuel (Eric Caravaca), a young man who is tormented by what happened and feels there has been nothing in his life. Encouraged by mother Irene (Josiane Balasko), he meets with Francois and learns that he now can speak out and have the emotional support to do so.
Continuing together to fight with whatever means possible, they create a website for other survivors to reach out and get the justice they deserve for a childhood taken by someone who is so trusted by families.
Poupaud as Alexandre is such a calm man considering the hurt he has carried since childhood. Looking for guidance still in the church, it becomes a daily struggle when the unresolved past comes back. He is a man who isn’t looking for money, fame or to bring down the church – just to make it safe for children and the child still inside him. There are such strong moments that Poupaud is clearly angered but he doesn’t let it control every step he takes after realizing that the church isn’t going to make it right. Poupaud’s performance actually kept my own anger in check and shared his hope until the very end of the film.
Menochet as Francois begins his story not wanting to bring up the past. Feeling he put his parents through enough when he was a child, just tries to wave it away. That is until he discovers that the man who left a scar on his soul is still being allowed to be around children. That’s when his anger begins to find its way out and he takes a strong stand against those who claim to care but don’t, those who claim to want to tell the story but don’t and a religious system that will try to stonewall them all. Menochet gives it to us straight and without apology and there isn’t a moment where his character should ever think to apologize. If Alexandre is the calm then Francois is the fierce storm.
Caravaca as Emmanuel is the openly tortured soul of the trio the film tackles. He has been unable to find his place in the world because of the constant internal struggle. His ability to hold relationships is shaky at best and the only thing stable in life is the support of his mother. Once he speaks with Francois and realizes there is a way out of the hole they’ve all been put in, he reaches for the light totally. He begins to see the world as it can be for him and that is everything for Emmanuel.
Verley as Father Preynat has the most difficult job of not caring that by the end of the film we despise his character. Throughout the film I became so engrained in the story I found myself shouting at him. Of course I realize he is the actor portraying Father Preynat but he is brilliant in getting the desired emotional effect. Marthouret as Cardinal Barbarin is another actor who had my total disgust by the films end. Barbarin should receive the same punishment as anyone else who covers their rear end with a cardinals robes and Marthouret gave us the performance needed to make that emotion come to the surface.
Erhel as Regine Maire is another character that just about send me over the edge. Her surface demeanor is one of care and concern, but each time she is on the screen I am less and less a believer that Regine Maire is someone I’d ever trust. Well done Erhel!
Other cast include Eric Caravaca as Gilles Perret, Helene Vincent as Odile Debord, Frederic Pierrot as Captain Courteau, Jeanne Rosa as Dominique Perret, and Amelie Daure as Jennifer.
BY THE GRACE OF GOD is a difficult film from beginning to end for several reasons. One, beause of the mere fact that it has taken so long for these men to receive some peace (and not at the hands of the church) by taking control. Seeing their stories of faith being tested, memories difficult to bear and the anguish of families who also are struggling with what happened to their children is heartbreaking. It is also a look at the children of these men who learn that their fathers have experienced something they can’t even imagine just to make sure they never have to.
These men live in a world where it became necessary to jump out of their childhood fears and feel worthy of standing up to say ‘this can no longer happen to any other child…ever again!’ Their road could not have been an easy one and every time they were slapped down by the powers that be, the rose up even stronger and in more numbers. Finding that strength in each other and accepting that the process could take a while, they still didn’t give up.
There was nothing in these men that sought fame or money and that’s what kept me watching the film. How do you tell someone that has never experienced anything like they have that fighting for what is right takes as much strength as the will to live with what comes after. It is time for the Vatican to stand with victims such as the Lift the Burden of Silence group and do what is morally, spiritually and criminally right. To accept anything less from the Vatican is unacceptable.
Director Ozon says of his film, “My starting point for this film came from a desire to explore masculine fragility and sensitivity. My films are often about strong women. This time, I wanted to show men suffering and expressing deep emotions. As a matter of fact, my working title for the project was The Crying Man.”
He explains that, “In 2018, I discovered La Parole Liberee (Lift the Burden of Silence), a website created by men who had been abused as children by a Catholic priest in Lyon [France]. I was particularly touched by Alexandre, a fervent Catholic who was finally able to tell his story at the age of forty. The website was full of powerful personal accounts, interviews, articles and email exchanges with local Catholic authorities. I’d found my subject. I would tell the story of three men and how each of them decides to lift the burden of silence: one within the church, one through the media and one in the justice system.”
In the end – they battle faith, hope and peace to find justice!