By the Grace of God might feel familiar to American audiences; it bears many similarities to the Academy Award winning Spotlight, which also focused on a team effort to expose pedophile priests. Both are procedurals, but the similarities end there. Where Spotlight focused on journalists, By the Grace of God is more personal, where it explores the lives of three different victims who come together to shine a light on the truth.
Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), François (Denis Ménochet), and Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud) all lead very different lives, but are united by one thing: when they were young, they were routinely molested by Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), a widely respected priest in Lyon. When Alexandre discovers that Father Preynat is still working with children despite prior complaints of his pedophile behavior, he’s spurred by a crisis of faith into taking action and begins an awareness campaign that ends with a massive public exposé, and a trial that ended after the film’s release in France. It’s a story ripped from the headlines so quickly that the newspaper pages are still wet from the ink.
A bizarre departure from François Ozon’s previous career path of erotically-charged thrillers, By the Grace of God is a deeply emotional drama about the power a community has in making major changes to improve victim’s lives. It’s expertly shot and edited, and stuffed to the gills with wonderful actors who make every moment count: Verley in particular portrays Preynat as a quietly disturbing monster who can charm his way out of any situation. There are, however, a few caveats: the first act’s epistolary monologues fall flat and become repetitive, and the pacing is off in the last third of the film, making it feel drawn out. Despite these flaws, By the Grace of God remains an intelligent, thought-provoking dramatic piece from an otherwise critically acclaimed director.
On the other hand, there’s The Truth. If you’ve ever fought with a parent about your childhood and events in your past, then Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest will hit home hard. His latest film, almost a mirror version of his most recent masterpiece, the Palme d’Or winning Shoplifters, focuses on a fraught mother-daughter relationship. The mother? Critically acclaimed actress Fabienne (the legendary Catherine Deneuve). The daughter? Successful screenwriter Lumir (the legendary Juliette Binoche). The launch of Fabienne’s autobiography has triggered a visit from Lumir, with her American actor husband Hank (Ethan Hawke), and their young daughter (Clémentine Grenier). What begins as a stand-off between Fabienne and Lumir about omissions and selected memoirs in her autobiography, later shifts into an exploration of the power that memories hold over us, even if they were merely imagined in our heads.
Memory is a slippery thing to try and control, and conflicting viewpoints about the past lead to division. Fabienne swears that she attended her daughter’s school play (The Wizard of Oz) to see her play the Cowardly Lion; Lumir disputes her. It’s a battle that will ring true to viewers like myself, who have found themselves in that very same familial struggle. In her initial refusal to take Lumir’s complaints seriously, Fabienne reveals herself to be a narcissist, and her actions (and eventual redemption) crafts a story familiar to many of us. We want our parents to have a big part in our lives; but sometimes they have to recognize their own flaws and failures before they can become the parents we wish them to be.
The honest truth about memory is that we can twist our own memories to fit the narratives we build around our lives; we can turn the truth into a comforting lie. Kore-eda unwinds this concept to brilliant effect, creating a deceptive yet enthralling depiction of the same constant inner struggle that we all have: to lie, or to be honest?
The Truth and By The Grace of God screened at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. IFC Films will release The Truth in the coming months. By The Grace of God is now playing in select cinemas.