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    Ozon’s New Film Tackles the Church Abuse Scandal in France

    By Gary Kramer–

    By the Grace of God, opening November 1 in the Bay Area, is out gay director François Ozon’s riveting drama about the church’s recent child abuse scandal in Lyon.

    The film chronicles the efforts of several victims of pedophile priest Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley) to bring the situation to light and to demand accountability from the Catholic church. Several stories unfold, starting with Alexandre (Melvin Poupaud), who takes a respectful approach to confronting the church and its hierarchy.

    He eventually files a complaint that sets a chain of events and disclosures in motion. François (Denis Ménochet) is one victim who goes to the media to inform the public and forms an association for other sufferers. One of the most moving stories is Emmanuel’s (Swann Arlaud), a young man who is still haunted by what happened to him as a child.

    The ripples that the abuse have on the men, their families, and loved ones are artfully handled as the victims seek justice, not revenge, and hope to change the statute of limitations about such cases as men are encouraged—and find the courage—to speak out. This is an absorbing film made with considerable empathy and righteous anger. Ozon’s concerned approach never allows By the Grace of God to become too melodramatic or histrionic.

    The director recently chatted with me for the San Francisco Bay Times about his outstanding film.

    Gary M. Kramer: What prompted you to tackle this subject in a film, and why now?

    François Ozon: I had never had the subject of pedophile in mind. I have made many films about strong women, so I wanted to make a film about strong men. I was looking for a subject and I discovered these testimonies of abused children. I was moved. When I met the victims, they told me their story, and I decided to make a film.

    Gary M. Kramer: It is very difficult for people who have been abused to share stories of their abuse. It’s more than just shame; it’s a loss of trust and faith. It’s about feeling weak and vulnerable. What are your observations on the impact of this?

    François Ozon: When I met the victims, it was moving to hear the survivors telling me the intimate stories of their families when they decided to speak out. I saw that an abused child is a ticking time bomb. Their [trauma] affects everyone in the family. The parents, the brothers, and sisters, and even their children feel guilty. The film is about the repercussions of abuse for all members of the family.

    Gary M. Kramer: You tell the story, first through letters, then through actions, documenting how the cases each unfolded. Can you discuss your approach to the sensitive material?

    François Ozon: The approach was suitable for each character. Alexandre was sober and very polite. François is looking to fight, and Emmanuel is suffering. The mise-en-scène is close to the soul of each character. I wanted to be with each man and share his emotion. When I introduce a new character, I give audiences two minutes with him to create an emotional link.

    Gary M. Kramer: By the Grace of God encourages victims to speak out. Can you talk about that?

    François Ozon: I hope it does. In France, the film was successful and had a big influence. People came out and spoke out. I know some new victims spoke for the first time. When you are abused, you think you are alone, and when you share your suffering and fight together, you realize you are not alone. In the film, Emmanuel is reborn. This [activism] helps him survive.

    Gary M. Kramer: Please share more about how your film was received in France and by the church.

    François Ozon: The church was afraid before the release, but when they saw the film, they were nice to me because they understand I respected the faith. I was earnest. There was nothing new; there were always items about [the scandal] in the paper. The film shows the point of view of the victims and the [church] discovered how much these men suffered. In the end, the film was supported by the Catholic community; they came to see it. Many Catholics are upset by the situation, and they thanked me. They want things to change.

    Gary M. Kramer: What has changed? 

    François Ozon: Many things. After the release of the film, [Cardinal] Barbarin was condemned, and the priest [Preynat] was defrocked. People realize how much pedophilia can be a crime. Change is slow, but it is happening.

    Gary M. Kramer: Do you think it’s possible for victims to find closure or healing?

    François Ozon: It takes time. It’s a long fight but some are able. It depends on social background. For some, it destroys them for their entire life, and some victims commit suicide. 

    © 2019 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer