Francois Ozon's 'By The Grace Of God' Tackles Abuse In The French Church The French filmmaker first wanted to make a documentary about an accused pedophile priest. But the victims convinced him that fiction would reach more viewers. It's called By the Grace of God.
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'People Are Afraid Of Cinema': François Ozon Takes On Church Sexual Abuse

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'People Are Afraid Of Cinema': François Ozon Takes On Church Sexual Abuse

'People Are Afraid Of Cinema': François Ozon Takes On Church Sexual Abuse

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Investigations into child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church have been the topic of gut-wrenching movies, books and documentaries. The acclaimed French director Francois Ozon is now telling another story in France. "By The Grace Of God" is based on a true story and takes a slightly different approach, telling the story from the victim's point of view, as Rebecca Rosman reports.

REBECCA ROSMAN, BYLINE: French director Francois Ozon is known for his movies that feature strong female protagonists, like 2002's "8 Women." But for his latest, Ozon wanted to do something different.

FRANCOIS OZON: This time, I wanted to make a film about men, about the fragility of men, about men able to express their sensitivity, their emotions.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BY THE GRACE OF GOD")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (As characters, singing)

ROSMAN: The film opens in 2014 with the story of Alexandre, a 40-year-old banker, devout Catholic and father of five who was abused by a priest in Catholic scouts. After finding out that the priest is still working with children, he goes to the church to confess what happened to him, thinking it will put an end to the priest's career. When it doesn't, Alexandre goes to the police to press charges.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BY THE GRACE OF GOD")

MELVIL POUPAUD: (As Alexandre, speaking French).

ROSMAN: In real life, the case drew international attention and led to the creation of an organization called La Parole Liberee, or Lift the Burden. Founded in 2015, the group has collected testimonies from the victims of Bernard Preynat, a priest who spent three decades sexually abusing dozens of boys in the city of Lyon. Preynat's actions were widely known within the church but systematically covered up until Alexandre became the first victim to press charges. Says filmmaker Francois Ozon...

OZON: It was amazing. When I did the investigation on the subject, when I meet all the people, when I read all the articles, I realize this priest never deny about the facts. He said always, I have problem with kids. The church knew, and they did nothing during 30 years. So it's so shocking and unfair, so I wanted to show that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTOR REVVING)

ALEXANDRE DUSSOT-HEZEZ: And, really, La Parole Liberee was an incredible thing in France because we allowed a lot of people to speak with no limits.

ROSMAN: I met the real Alexandre Dussot-Hezez, who carries the same polished financier look of his onscreen character. At a cafe, he steps away from the Paris Opera House.

DUSSOT-HEZEZ: We realized that we are not one, two, four or five, but we have more than a hundred people with exactly the same story and with exactly the same impact of their life.

ROSMAN: He tells me that Ozon first approached him with the intention of making a documentary. He rejected the idea, insisting on a fiction film instead.

DUSSOT-HEZEZ: Because to my mind, I think that the film can become a story of everybody and not only the story of Alexandre Dussot-Hezez, Francois Devaux, Pierre-Emmanuel, et cetera.

OZON: I realized they were waiting for me to make a kind of French "Spotlight." So I said, OK, I'm able to make fiction. I will tell your story as a fiction with actors.

ROSMAN: But Ozon's film does stay close to actual events, keeping the main characters' names and using real dialogue from press conferences. Pierre-Emmanuel Germain-Thill is portrayed in the film as a man who, despite his near-genius IQ, struggles both in his professional and personal life, still traumatized by his abuse.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BY THE GRACE OF GOD")

SWANN ARLAUD: (As Emmanuel Thomassin, speaking French)

ROSMAN: We also meet Francois, based on Francois Devaux, an outspoken atheist who helped start the organization La Parole Liberee.

ISABELLE DE GAULMYN: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: Isabelle de Gaulmyn is a journalist for the Catholic newspaper La Croix. She's written a book about the Preynat affair.

DE GAULMYN: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: She applauds Ozon for his accuracy but also for the intimacy he displayed throughout the film. With fiction, she says, you can express certain fragilities and emotions that help the audience connect better with the stories.

DE GAULMYN: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: Getting those emotions in theaters wasn't easy. Francois Ozon says the Catholic Church tried to block the French release of the film in February, arguing it would have an impact on the trials of Father Preynat and Philippe Barbarin, the cardinal who covered up the abuse.

OZON: People are afraid of cinema, you know? It's the power of cinema. You realize a film like "Spotlight" was very powerful. And my film, actually, all the people of the church were afraid. I was like the devil before the release of the film. And when the film was released, oh, maybe he's a saint because the film is honest.

ROSMAN: In May, Cardinal Barbarin was given a six-month suspended sentence for failing to report the abuse. Father Preynat was defrocked and is awaiting trial next year.

For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Rosman in Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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