Berlinale Briefs: François Ozon’s ‘By the Grace of God’ tackles abuse scandal

BERLIN – It’s early to predict the winner of the Main Competition at this year’s Berlinale, the 69th Berlin Film Festival, which runs through February 17.

FRANÇOIS OZON’S ‘By the Grace of God.’ (photo credit: JEAN-CLAUDE MOIREAU)
FRANÇOIS OZON’S ‘By the Grace of God.’
(photo credit: JEAN-CLAUDE MOIREAU)
BERLIN – It’s early to predict the winner of the Main Competition at this year’s Berlinale, the 69th Berlin Film Festival, which runs through February 17, but the buzz is that one of the first films shown, François Ozon’s By the Grace of God, could be the big winner.
This sensitively made film takes on an important topic – sexual abuse of children in Lyon by Catholic clergy – and makes a gripping and thought-provoking movie out of it. Although many are dubbing it the French Spotlight – the American film about Boston reporters breaking a similar abuse scandal, which won a Best Picture Oscar – it tells the story from the perspective of several abuse victims. These victims are three very different men, all of whom have found that the abuse and the shame of keeping it secret has colored their adult lives. The film explores how they decide to make formal police complaints against the priest who abused them and the cardinal who covered it up for more than 30 years, and shows how justice and healing can be maddeningly elusive.
The ongoing trial of Lyon-based Cardinal Philippe Barbarin – who is accused of having covered up sexual abuses by Bernard Preynat, a respected priest in his dioceses, who has admitted to molesting boys for decades – is set to conclude next month, so By the Grace of God couldn’t be more topical.
Ozon, who is known for such films as Double Lover and Swimming Pool, acknowledged at a press conference that while the Catholic Church in France has attacked the film, he has stayed true to the facts.
“A lot of ordinary Catholics are sick of their religion being associated with pedophilia and want the hierarchy to sort the problem out once and for all,” he said.
Holland’s Mr. Jones tells an inconvenient truth
A fascinating new English-language film by Agnieszka Holland, Mr. Jones, which is part of the main competition of the Berlinale, the Berlin Film Festival, tells the harrowing true story of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, who nearly died documenting the horrors of the Holodomor, the man-made famine in the Ukraine in 1932-1933, perpetrated by Stalin’s regime against the local population, which left between three and seven million dead of starvation (estimates vary, depending on which areas are included in the tally and due to various other factors). 
The film shows how virtually all Western journalists, even those who wrote for respected newspapers like The New York Times, were satisfied with superficial statements by the Soviet government in Moscow and never left the city to do any real reporting. But young maverick Jones (James Norton) struck out on his own in the Ukrainian countryside and was witness to gruesome and disturbing realities. He barely got out alive, but when he returned to Britain, he faced another fight to try to convince his editors, the government and the public that what he had seen was true, much as those who managed to escape concentration camps early on were often dismissed by the press at the time when the Holocaust was taking place. 
Mr. Jones shows how even liberal intellectuals such as George Orwell weren’t ready to face the truth, although the film documents how Orwell was eventually inspired by Jones’ reporting. 
Mr. Jones was produced by Stanislaw Dziedzic at Film Produkcja, Klaudia Smieja and Andrea Chalupa, who also wrote the script and in addition to Norton, it stars Vanessa Kirby (The Crown) and Peter Sarsgaard (An Education).
Agnieszka Holland has had a varied and distinguished career and has directed the Oscar-nominated films, In Darkness and Europa Europa. 
Coming at a time when debates over so-called fake news are dominating the headlines, this complex story about an inconvenient and horrific truth that no one wanted to hear could not be more timely or more welcome. This famine has been the subject of non-fiction books, notably The Harvest of Sorrow by Robert Conquest, but this is the first dramatic film I’ve ever seen that deals with it. 
Let’s hope Mr. Jones comes to theaters in Israel sooner rather than later.