Sometimes films can make a real difference. And with pictures like this one, their role goes far beyond that of entertainment. By the Grace of God tackles sexual abuse of minors within the Catholic church. It unpacks the complexities of the issues surrounding this crime – why victims struggle to come forward, how those that do are fobbed off and how parents’ heads become buried in the sands of guilt, denial and naivety. It’s often a frustrating, disturbing and incredulous watch. Yet there’s an increasing sense of hope as the piece progresses and thankfully, some sense of justice.
French cinema is arguably the best in the world: realistic, accessible, touching and subtle. This is not an easy subject matter, yet it is handled perfectly. There’s no sensationalism, unnecessary dramatisation or skewed perspectives. Instead, we see rounded characters and narratives that reflect life – and shine a light on some of it, without trying to answer all the questions.
It’s unsurprising that the priest who’s portrayed in the film, Bernard Preynat, tried to block its release. By the Grace of God does much to further the victims’ stories and expose cover-ups in the church, as it follows the stories of several who fight against the system, initially individually and then en masse. But it speaks further than just these events in Lyon. Or even just the hypocrisy and injustice that lies within many areas of this institution. Like the Time’s Up movement, its reach and message extend to all victims and perpetrators. The French Statute of Limitations (a legal loophole that puts a time limit on the reporting of crimes) is a major theme – it’s clear the filmmakers are trying to challenge and highlight the way in which this serves to protect perpetrators.
On a technical level, the film is also well shot, and convincingly acted by a warm and very believable cast, who produce multidimensional characterisations. The media is often berated for its crimes, and at times rightly so. But as Preynat was finally defrocked in July 2019 and the cardinal who covered it up was given a suspended sentence, it’s possible that this piece did contribute to changing the landscape just a little.