There are now so many international films dealing with the issue of sexual abuse by Catholic priests or bishops that one wonders what another could add to that. But the old master of the French film, François Ozon ("8 women" / 2002) has decided to bring a scandal from the recent past of France as a feature film on the big screen, based on the real happenings.
The case of the priest Bernhard Preynat in Lyon has made headlines nationwide. Ozone's film "Grâce à Dieu" (2019) now had its world premiere at the Berlinale – a few weeks before an important court date in the ongoing legal proceedings for the abuse scandal.
Accused are several Catholic dignitaries and church staff who have been covering up the abuse by the priest for years. At least 70 children and adolescents, mostly boys, are said to have sexually abused Preynat between 1986 and 1991. In court, however, the Archbishop of Lyon, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, has to answer for the first time: he is charged with "non-disclosure" and failure to provide assistance. Six members of the diocese are also in the dock. The judgment is to be made on March 7, 2019.
In a separate trial, the accused priest Bernhard Preynat will also be brought to justice. An appointment for it is so far not fixed. Since his indictment in 2016, Preynat has been under judicial oversight.
Preynat himself also goes to court: he wants to prevent the start of the feature film in France. "Grâce à Dieu" is scheduled to start there on cinemas on February 20th. The film-based church psychologist Regine Maire, who is responsible for the priests in the Diocese of Lyon, also complains against the production company. She demands that her name be removed from the movie storyline.
Pressure of the catholic church
Director Ozon said on Thursday (08.02.2019) at the press conference before the Berlinale premiere in Berlin that his portrayal in the film is factual and authentic. He sees no danger that his movie could influence the course of the process. "Everything I talk about in my film and everything I tell there has already appeared in the French press," he said in front of the press in Berlin.
Obviously, film production is feeling the pressure of the Catholic Church, the French director admitted. "You have not even seen the movie, and basically attack us on principle."
Investigative research in the film
Even before Ozon discovered this controversial topic for his new film, the experienced filmmaker had long wanted to film a screenplay in which men are in the foreground. His feature film "8 Women", with which he had a great success in 2002, is dedicated exclusively to strong female figures.
Then he came across the website of an association called "La Parole Libérée" ("breaking the burden of silence"). There, testimonies, letters and emails are collected from abuse victims written to the Catholic Church in Lyon – and left unanswered. There was also documented the inaction and the cover-up on the part of the church hierarchy, although the criminal behavior of the Catholic priest was known for years.
A documentary would have been too few
Initially, François Ozon thought he would translate the material into a documentary. But after personally interviewing some of the victims and interviewing their families as well, the experienced director realized that he had to choose a different form. Many of those affected had already told their experiences in front of the camera. A fictional feature film would better depict and dramatically escalate their suffering story, as well as their grief, which was inflicted on them by the silence of the church hierarchy.
The names of the victims were all changed in the script, the perpetrator and the confidant within the Catholic Church were retained in the film. This is also the basis of the legal dispute before the film launch in France.
Three main characters and a network of victims
The film is divided into three parts and concentrates on characters with very different stories and functions, "who pass on the staff like in a relay," said Ozon in Berlin.
Alexandre, presented by Melvil Poupaud, has the highest respect for the church as an institution. He is already 40 years old, has a successful career in a bank and, together with his wife, who supports him in everything, educates his five children as Catholics.
After discovering that the priest who abused him as a child is still working with children, Alexandre urges church leaders to release him from church service. When he fails, he announces the Archbishop of Lyon.
The subsequent investigation involves another victim, François (Denis Menochet), involved in the case. As an atheist, he has no reservations about the church, courageously publicizing the case, and founding a club to track down as many victims as possible – since most cases are barred after twenty years, it's crucial to the process, more recent witness testimony to find.
Role of the bourgeoisie
While the first two men are well off, the third main character, Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), is struggling with a difficult social environment, and the consequences of the abuse have had a greater impact on his future life.
Ozone's nuanced portrayal of these men and their family backgrounds shows how Lyon's educated, conservative bourgeoisie has deliberately avoided confronting a powerful Catholic institution whose structures are intertwined with its own privilege and wealth.
The opening sequence of the film shows the cardinal on the terrace of the Lyon Basilica, with a breathtaking view of the French city – a visual metaphor for the church's power over the city, which has been a cradle of Christianity since the second century.
Shooting in Belgium and Luxembourg
Apart from filming the outdoor scenes, Ozon and his producers did not even try to get permission to film in the city's churches. Instead, they secretly worked in Belgium and Luxembourg as they wanted to avoid the influence of the clergy.
Next week, a preview of "Grâce à Dieu" is planned in Lyon, and the filmmaker is curious if Cardinal Barbarin will appear to see the film.
Other Church members have already thanked Ozone for whirling things up. In his view, many clergymen are hoping for a real change: "Many ordinary Catholics are tired of their religion being associated with pedophilia and want the Hierarchy to solve the problem once and for all."
You can find further films on the subject in our picture gallery.