My name is Alexandre Guérin. I’m 40 and married with five kids… Despite doubt and conflict with the Church, I’ve stayed close to Christ, and raise my children in the faith of his love. I recently ran into another father at school. We were both scouts at Saint Luc. We talked about school and camps. He asked me a troubling question. “Did Father Preynat fondle you too?”
So begins, in voiceover, François Ozon’s remarkable new film BY THE GRACE OF GOD, an investigation of pedophilia, sexual abuse, and cover-up in the Lyon diocese that plays like a great French policier. Originally planned as a documentary, Ozon interviewed and studied the case files of three men who, as children, suffered at the hands of Preynat, Cardinal Barbarin, and Régine Maire, the church psychologist charged with providing support to victims of priests. (To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, Maire is an exponent of the evil of banality.)
Guérin—quoted above and played in the film by Melvil Poupaud—remains a true believer, and often takes positions of abjection that may startle and alienate non-Catholics. François (Denis Ménochet), an atheist, favors a less passive approach and goes on to co-found the activist organization Lift the Burden. Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud) bears the full burden of abuse, struggling through an afterlife of doubt and precarity.
BY THE GRACE OF GOD is centered around words, but it was also necessary to conjure images to evoke the violence these men experienced as children. For each of them, I created a flashback that shows almost nothing—a short walk, a door opening, a tent closing—but suggests everything in the space of an instant, through places, the use of light….
As I worked on these scenes, after interviewing many victims about the times they were abused, suddenly I remembered a scene from my own childhood that I had totally forgotten, or perhaps blocked out.
One day, at catechism, when I was eight years old, we were playing a game of hide-and-seek. A priest I liked very much told me he knew a great hiding place and took me there. I followed him innocently to a dark doorway, where he held me tight. It was strange. I felt his adult body against my small frame. His breathing was so loud. I remember thinking, “He’s breathing too loud, they’ll find us!” Now I understand he was fighting against repressed lust. A few long minutes passed. I can still see myself pushing him away and running to join my friends. The game of hide-and-seek was over.
This long-lost memory triggered a feeling of vertigo. Suddenly I had a deeper understanding of the victims. And I realized that I myself had come very close to a horrifying and tragic thing that could have greatly damaged me. If that priest had crossed the line, it would have altered the course of my life.
This past summer, Preynat was defrocked and is awaiting criminal trial.
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François Ozon, By the Grace of God / Grâce à Dieu (2019), from top: Melvil Poupaud (left), Denis Ménochet (center); Poupaud; Swann Arlaud; Ozon on set; Poupaud (right). Images courtesy and © the actors, the director, and Music Box Films.