By the Grace of God, about French Catholic church child molestation, is a gut-punch

By the Grace of God (M)

4 stars

The Australian small screen has endured one of the saddest long-running mini-series in recent years with the trial of Cardinal George Pell. The he writers at the High Court are still to turn out one gut-churning final episode next year.

A scene from By the Grace of God. Picture: Supplied

A scene from By the Grace of God. Picture: Supplied

If, however, you haven't already had your fill of historical sexual abuse cases by priests and cardinals, and you feel like going for a night out to see more of the same, over a glass of wine maybe, lightly fictionalised and performed in French, then this is the film for you.

I am, of course, being inappropriately flippant and wry about a subject that is so vile and so unfortunately prolific.

But the story isn't uniquely Australian. It's ubiquitous, and By The Grace of God is about one of France's most notorious cases of the clergy misusing the trust their communities hold for them. It is also one most recently played out in the courts.

Francois Ozon started this project as a documentary "in the spirit of Spotlight", based on the trial of Philippe Barbarin, Archbishop of Lyon, accused of failing to report sexual abuse cases. This only came to its legal conclusion in March of this year, a few months after Ozon wrapped filming.

Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud) is an outwardlysuccessful middle-aged family man, masking the trauma he still feels from the sexual assaults he endured as a child at the hands of local priest Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley).

As Preynat had remained active in the local church ever since, despite many complaints fromfamilies, Alexandre approaches Cardinal Barbarin, who claims ignorance despite an inquirydrawing a large number of similar testimonies.

Here we meet three new characters, all victims of Preynat, each having taken on different responses both to the way they have built their lives following their childhood traumas, and in theresponses they're having to this later adult exhumation of buried pain.

Gilles (Eric Caravaca), who has become a surgeon, is about mediation and balance. Francois (Denis Menochet) is an atheist, keen to set fire to the church with his white-hot anger. Least able to move on and build a stable adult life for himself is Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), having been the most targeted by the paedophile priest in his childhood.

Together the gentlemen form a bond in their shared history and their common goal, to shine that aforesaid "spotlight" on their abuse.

This film marks a real departure for writer-director Francois Ozon from his usual fare. Here, his style is plain, no-nonsense, restrained, but it makes for compelling viewing consistently through the 138-minute running time.

Viewers familiar with Ozon will expect the brightness and confection of his musical 8 Women (the songs from which still feature on my jogging playlist), the sensuality of the Charlotte Rampling-starring Swimming Pool, or the psychological comedy of In The House.

In the film, one of the characters' children asks him why he is pursuing the case. "So it stops happening," comes the reply, which equally is a strong reason for Ozon to have pursued this same case through filmmaking. He should be lauded - he won the Berlin Film Festival's Silver Bear - and the film should be seen here, though I say that while employing that flippant phrase "Trigger Warning!"

Ozon's film is only lightly fictionalised, based on his thorough research, and transcripts. His writing and his direction are full of empathy, tied to these characters. It is far more of a gut-punch than Spotlight, which followed the journalists piecing such stories together, rather than these first-person narratives.

The title refers to a statement the Cardinal publicly made, that "By the Grace of God" the legal statute of limitations on the priest's actions had run out. It is hard to hear.

This story By the Grace of God is a gut-punch first appeared on The Canberra Times.