Spotlight, the 2015 film about the Boston Globe’s investigation of sex-abuse cases in local Catholic churches, might be the worst Best Picture Oscar winner so far. The angry-crusader angle revealed sanctimonious media self-congratulation at its most arrogant yet maudlin, and its sacrilegious offense was compounded by the aesthetic offense of its dreary indie-movie visual style. Spotlight’s narrative epitomized the failure of Hollywood’s political moralizing — a tendency of American filmmakers that reduces complex life to issues, as in simplistic good vs. evil antagonism.
But François Ozon’s By the Grace of God (Grâce à Dieu) crushes the vain, insipid hindsight of Spotlight. Ozon, who is France’s most accomplished provocateur-filmmaker, dramatizes the true story of how several Lyon men in 2016 brought Archbishop Philippe Barbarin to trial for harboring the priest Bernard Preynat, who they claim molested them as children. This time, Ozon’s provocation lies in the reasoned measure he brings to this unsettling subject and to the presumptions typically perpetrated by the media about guilt and institutional corruption.
Bad-boy Ozon’s interest in the ironies of surrealism and satire (Under the Sand, Sitcom, 8 Women, Ricky, In the House, Young & Beautiful) has shaped the depth and expanse of his steadily maturing vision. He compresses the numerous Lyon complainants into three characters: banker Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), activist François (Denis Ménochet), and savant Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud). They create a coalition, “Lift the Burden of Silence,” but this is not a cheerleading tale of community activism. Ozon discerns each man’s personality, his family relations, religious sensitivity, and social differences so that the film surpasses the “controversy” that excites American filmmakers and instead considers larger moral and spiritual experience.
By the Grace of God is subtly epic. Its tone differs from the energetic panorama of Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute) that re-created the AIDS activism of 1980s Paris. Ozon’s composure recalls the intelligent distance of Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story, in which religious and secular awareness were intelligently balanced — respect that has been lost to contemporary, anti-Catholic, media-fomented hysteria. In this elegant approach (sumptuously shot by Manuel Dacosse), the story’s bourgeois placidity is consistently undermined by the gravity of the characters’ emotional turmoil. Their lives are shaken as the institution of the church is shaken.
Ozon depicts this catastrophe through the delicate precision of his performers. “Time to leave,” Poupaud starts the film, playing Alexandre, a father gathering his wife, four sons, and one daughter for church. But this also references Ozon’s 2005 movie, Time to Leave (Le temps qui reste), which was about a gay man who, facing mortality, decided he wanted to procreate — a decision that, at that time, outraged the Village Voice’s progressive reviewer but demonstrated Ozon’s rich humanism. Poupaud’s extraordinary performance here limns the ambiguity of men who are not gay with those who felt gay after their abuse.
Arlaud’s Emmanuel describes his lost confidence, and Ozon depicts his tempestuous love life with Mike Leigh–style realism, while the determined atheist revenge of Ménochet’s François rocks relations with his superficially cozy immediate family. Even the portrayals of bureaucratic Barbarin (François Marthouret) and the abuser (Bernard Verley) attain credible pathos. Ozon told critic Alex Ramon: “It wasn’t so much that I was looking to make a film about current events, more that I wanted to make a film about male fragility, one in which you would see male characters expressing their emotions and sensitivity.” Ozon counters the trendy notions of “toxic masculinity” and victims seeking justice. This insight into masculine vulnerability makes the film remarkable.
Ozon’s cinematic sophistication easily contrasts with Spotlight’s crudeness, but his art also shows in his details: Alexandre’s demand “I don’t want apologies, I want sanction.” His semantic discussion with Barbarin that “the words ‘pedophile’ and ‘priest’ are not compatible.” So they settle on “pedosexual.” (“C’est juste!”) And the differences of dogma and language continue when Barbarin misstates his feelings before the press.
Ozon explores this spiritual calamity using poetic motifs that rouse the imagination: Casual family portraits of Alexandre’s nubile sons; the discovery of a boy in a classic Holocaust photo (the same one Bergman used to powerful, timeless effect in Persona); the tension between priest and petitioners when Alexandre faces Preynat, and his children making an appeal to Barbarin — meetings where sacrament and sacrilege mix; plus a Sylvester and Tweety cartoon that avoids bad taste through cerebral irony. The only misstep might be the emotive music that hypes a press conference, but the lapse into obvious sentiment is small compared with the range of tough responses Ozon shows in the film’s mothers and wives, whose voices and eyebrows rise in accepting fate.
French cinema’s sophistication far surpasses the crass grandstanding of issue-oriented American filmmaking. Ozon’s activists expose that difference when plotting their strategies: “We provide the information; the journalist will add indignation.” Such propaganda has ruined topical filmmaking, but Ozon is crafty. True to his artistic commitment, Ozon understands the importance of not succumbing to political correctness. “Baptism and faith override the institution,” Alexandre says as he makes peace with his suffering cohorts’ diverging paths. Ozon keeps his spotlight on human need.