At The Movies

Two Recommendations: A Sensitive French Drama and A Documentary All About Movie Sound

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Melvil Poupaud, Denis Ménochet, and Eric Caravaca in “By the Grace of God.” Courtesy of Music Box Films

By the Grace of God
Regular moviegoers will remember the Oscar-winning “Spotlight” (2015), a superb chronicle of investigative journalism revealing a heinous history of sexual abuse among Catholic priests in Boston. While hardly a cheery subject, the film provided a riveting, suspenseful narrative with justified retribution at its end. Now, from a different angle, we have a French film, “By the Grace of God,” which turns a recent case of similar abuse into another grim but compelling story (This film, now in theaters, has English subtitles and runs 137 minutes.  While not formally rated, it clearly merits an
“R” rating).

This tale is told just as convincingly but from a different optic: the once-abused children fight back decades later as thoughtful yet dogged searchers for justice, for themselves and their compatriots. It is labeled “a fiction but based upon fact.”

The film begins in June 2014, when Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupaud), abused when he was a boy of 12, is moved to confront the priest who molested him, Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), by writing to the head of the city’s diocese, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin (François Marthouret). Unsatisfied with the church’s response, he files to investigate the priest. A separate victim, François Debord (Denis Ménochet) hears of the case, remembers his own abuse from the same priest and resolves to lead a campaign against the Church itself.  Debord, along with another victim, Gilles Perret (Eric Caravaca), mount a Lyon movement “Lift the Burden,” aiming to round up as many child victims as they can.  The movement’s growing publicity reaches another wounded figure, Emmanuel Thomassin (Swann Arlaud), who signs up both to confront his old oppressor and to fight the diocese’s cover-up.

This film, investigating the scandal over two years, shows a steady, inexorable momentum, with each phase of the three principals’ experiences played out in a most natural, even restrained, style.  Much like “Spotlight,” the film deals with the most sordid of themes yet avoids wallowing in them. The victim’s vile experiences are recounted but in an unvarnished, and almost chaste, way. The actual acts themselves are delicately represented in unsettling flashbacks that suggest the boys’ initial seductions at scout camps.

The true strength of Ozon’s film, besides his superlative writing, lies is his patient directing of his three leads. Alexandre is a calm and cautious man, a father of five but still a fully practicing Catholic. François, a gregarious father of three, quick to laugh and to bristle when offended, who has forsaken the church entirely. Emmanuel is the most damaged of the three, a fellow whose personal and sexual life has been thwarted since he suffered his abuse and who looks to the movement as a means to redeem his stolen life.

Ozon, known for a range of distinctive dramas (“Swimming Pool,” “Potiche,” Frantz”), originally intended to make a documentary about the case but shifted his focus for more directorial freedom. Thus, he takes on a “ripped-from-the-headlines” story for the first time and nails it. He achieves it in the underplaying of his scenes, the discreet character of his leads, and the peopling of his story with a large and artless cast, which enriches the film by giving a full sense of the families surrounding these victims. The portrayals of the men’s children, wives and lovers, and parents offer up a marvelous collection of believable characters, some wonderfully supportive, some befuddled, and some riddled with guilt.

As for being ripped-from-the-headlines. “By the Grace of God” is amazingly up-to-date. Since the film was finished, the actual Cardinal Barbarin was convicted in March 2019 for failing to report Preynat’s alleged sex abuse and served a suspended six-month prison sentence. Preyant himself was finally defrocked by the Archdiocese of Lyon just this past July after determining he was guilty of criminal acts on minors. It has been invoked that “the wheels of Justice grind slowly” but they can, sometimes, lead to closure.   

Sound Editor Walter Murch mixing “Apocalypse Now” in 1979. Photo courtesy Matson Films

Making Waves
Most movie lovers have a general appreciation for the technical skills that enhance a film.  Few, however, really understand what the sound track contributes to a film’s narrative and emotional impact.  Even serious film buffs don’t necessarily comprehend what the annual Oscar sound categories really mean (“sound editing” or “sound-effects,” or “sound mixing”?).  Well, now there is a chance to educate yourself on sound-in-film—and in an entertaining way. “Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound” is that picture (the film runs 94 minutes and is not rated). 

This cinematic primer introduces us to the variety and intricacies of sound in Hollywood film. It cites some of the best direct current filmmakers as well as interviewing some of the best “sound designers” (perhaps the best term to designate what these creative figures actually do).  Among its lessons is an exegesis
of the six elements on a sound track, clarifying the “sound” elements
along with the essential music and dialogue tracks.

The film is the first feature by a long-time stellar sound editor, Midge Costin, who obtains interviews from contemporary masters like Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, who have both declared that “sound is 50 percent of the movie.” Steven Spielberg chimes in by saying “our ears lead our eyes to where the story lives.”

In “Making Waves,” we also see and hear from several key sound designers – including multi-Oscar winners Walter Murch (“Apocalypse Now”), Ben Burtt (“Star Wars”) and Gary Rydstrom (“Saving Private Ryan”) – who, in pursuing their art and craft, should go down in cinema history as developing sound into
the immersive element it now is in moviemaking.

Appropriately, the film is replete with clips of how the complexities of sound can animate a film. These include sequences even when sound is absent, as in the stunning D-Day invasion in “Saving Private Ryan,” where the landing chaos is rendered as a deafening silence within the stupefied mind of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks). There is also a lovely section which highlights the ways and means of the Foley artists who render those everyday sound effects we hear by using the most intriguing materials.

This film was surely a labor of love for Midge Costin, who holds a chair in the Art of Sound Editing at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts (a post endowed by Lucas and Spielberg). She has worked as a sound director for more than 25 years, becoming best known for big budget action pictures in the 1990’s (“Crimson Tide” and “Armageddon,” inter alia). Besides working in the business, she has been a passionate advocate for the creative use of sound in the cinematic arts and has traveled the world to lecture on sound design and her experiences as a sound editor in Hollywood. Hers is a stunning debut.

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.