“By the Grace of God” is a French “Spotlight” that focuses its steady, unrelenting gaze not on investigative journalists but on the grown victims of priestly sex abuse and subsequent cover-ups. Based on the case of Father Bernard Preynat and the more than 80 survivors who came forward starting in 2016 with tales of his depredations, the film is written and directed by the busy filmmaker François Ozon (“Under the Sand,” “Swimming Pool,” “8 Women”) with immense sympathy for the emotional struggles of men.
Over two hours long but consistently engrossing, “By the Grace of God” dramatizes the efforts of three key figures in the Lyon-based victims’ group Lift the Burden of Silence. (The actual organization was called La Parole Libérée, or The Liberated Word). Ozon arranges their stories one after the other as the group slowly grows in number and their case against the Catholic archdiocese of Lyon and its archbishop, Philippe Barbarin, gathers force in the public eye.
The first pebble in the avalanche is tossed by Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupaud), a businessman, faithful churchgoer, husband, father, and traumatized survivor. In voice-overs, we hear the letters between Guérin and the diocese turn strained as he presses for the aging Preynat (Bernard Verley) to be defrocked while the archbishop (François Marthouret) only wants forgiveness and closure. The church psychologist (Martine Erhel) assigned the case advises Alexandre to let it go, saying “the wound will heal if it’s not scratched.”
Ultimately, Guérin files a police report, which brings investigators to the door of François Debord (Denis Ménochet), as explosive and outgoing as Alexandre is taciturn. Astonished to learn of the scope of Preynat’s crimes and that the priest is still actively teaching children, François locates other victims and forms the group to gain press attention and focus legal action. As more and more men are brought into the fray, we’re witness to every imaginable gradation of grief, relief, fury, and support.
With the introduction of Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), “By the Grace of God” has one of its most fragile figures, a former child prodigy who has spiraled into joblessness and cynicism. Gaunt, intelligent, lost, Emmanuel is genuinely moving, as is the gentleness and concern with which he is welcomed into the group. The movie has to restart its momentum afresh with each of these new characters, but the commitment of the performances goes a long way to keeping the audience invested.
In fact, one of the finest aspects of Ozon’s approach to this material is the way the film folds in other family members, so that we see the loving strength of Alexandre’s wife (Aurélia Petit) and older sons (Max Libert and Nicolas Bauwens), the mortified coldness of his mother (Laurence Roy), the long-simmering sibling rivalry of François’s brother (François Chattot), the brutish machismo of Emmanuel’s father (Christian Sinninger), and, most affectingly, the unbreakable love of Emmanuel’s mother (French film legend Josiane Balasko).
In this way, “By the Grace of God” shows how one man’s evil acts spread into the cracks of not just his victims’ lives but the lives of their loved ones as well. But the film’s gathering crowd also testifies to the sustenance people take when their pain is shared and they pool approaches and resources. As the men plot strategy in their campaign to have the priest and his archbishop brought to account, we see differing personalities emerge: Alexandre wants to reform the Church from within, while François wants to sky-write a giant penis above the basilica. In their very arguments, though, is the sound of crushed spirits coming back to life. “By the Grace of God” isn’t about people losing faith in God but finding faith in each other.
BY THE GRACE OF GOD
Written and directed by François Ozon. Starring Melvil Poupaud, Denis Ménochet, Swann Arlaud. At Kendall Square. 137 minutes. Unrated (explicit descriptions of sexual abuse). In French, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.