François Ozon at the Grâce à Dieu (By the Grace of God) press conference during the 69th Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/PASCAL LE SEGRETAIN
François Ozon at the Grâce à Dieu (By the Grace of God) press conference during the 69th Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/PASCAL LE SEGRETAIN

Berlin — One of France’s most acclaimed directors presented a wrenching new drama on Friday based on real-life victims of rampant sexual abuse in the Catholic church, as an accused priest tried to block the picture’s release later this month.

François Ozon worked for years in secret on Grâce à Dieu (By the Grace of God), which was warmly applauded at a press preview at the Berlin film festival ahead of its gala premiere.

It is the most-high profile dramatisation of the systematic cover-up of widespread sexual molestation by clergy since the Oscar-winning Spotlight, set in Boston and released in 2015. But even before the premier, a priest accused of molesting more than 80 boys, Bernard Preynat, has gone to court to demand that the film not be shown in France until after his trial, which is due to start later this year.

A lay voluntary worker for the Lyon diocese, Régine Maire, has also issued a legal challenge to have her name removed from the picture.

The movie’s premier comes as Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, and five others including Maire, await a verdict on charges of covering up the abuse.

Ozon — best known for Swimming Pool and 8 femmes — told AFP he had hoped the tortuous series of cases would have finished by now, but the film should be shown for “the public good”.

‘Breaking the silence’

“When you try to break the silence, there is always resistance,” he said. “I don’t think this is happening by accident, because it is a film which is trying to break an omerta, and which deals with the silence.”

The scandal first broke in 2015 when a former scout, François Devaux, went public with allegations that Preynat had abused him as a child 25 years earlier. Preynat was suspended by the church later that year and it eventually emerged that the cardinal had confronted him about “the rumours” in 2010 but the priest claimed he had changed.

Four years later, Barbarin went to the Vatican about him without contacting the police.

The film traces those events but sticks close to their emotional impact on three victims-turned-activists, who begin to confront their trauma publicly with the generally strong support of their families.

Ozon said he had consulted several members of the survivors’ group, La Parole Libérée (Freed Speech), Devaux set up, which has gathered the testimony of 85 people who claim to have been abused by Preynat in Lyon. But the director said he tried to be “as even-handed and objective as possible. It is not a film of goodies and baddies, it is much more complex than that for the affected families and the institution itself, and I tried to show that”.

By the Grace of God centres on Devaux and Alexandre Dussot-Hezez, “a fervent Catholic who discovers at the age of 40 that a priest who abused him is still alive and has access to children” through the church.

Devaux told AFP that Ozon’s approach to the victims’ painful experiences had been “very humane and very passionate” given the fact that for them and their families, they had been like “time bombs” waiting to go off.

Painful revelations 

Ozon said he wanted to show the “negative repercussions [victims can suffer] and the distressing boomerang effects on their partners, children, families and friends”.

Asked about Preynat’s bid for an injunction, Ozon insisted there were no major factual revelations in the film for anyone who has been following the case. “We are facing some pressure regarding the release of the film but everything in it is already well-known in France,” he told reporters in Berlin. “Most of the people attacking us haven't seen the film yet.”

The film maker hopes his intimate portrait of the victims’ fight for justice will spark greater understanding of a difficult subject that mainstream cinema has rarely confronted.

Ozon said the reaction from several French bishops and senior clergy that have seen the film has been positive, adding that he hopes it will provoke debate beyond France. “The church seems to be changing its stance on the scourge of paedophilia and the silence hanging over it.”