A very strange and moving film, Au hasard Balthazar is the pilgrim’s progress of a saintly, downtrodden donkey in rural France. Indeed, Robert Bresson’s austere black-and-white film shows our world, or some segment of it, from Balthazar’s perspective. This world, the scene of the animal’s serial suffering, is cold, spiteful, cruel and criminal. Most people do not behave in ways worth emulating. One only hopes that the note of grace that Balthazar interjects reveals a more hospitable eternity beyond our world’s borders.
The donkey, which is expressionless, has been described by critic J. Hoberman as “pure existence.” We follow the course of its life, from birth to death, as it passes from hand to hand, and sometimes back again, in what might be described as a portrait of perpetual orphanage. Briefly, Balthazar is featured in a circus, but the rest of its existence is an anonymous, hidden ordeal. The human characters, who also are inscrutable and expressionless, treat one another poorly, too, and may in some sense be kin to Balthazar.
Formally, the action is conveyed through a lightning series of elliptical scenes that suggest a depth of experience beyond our capacity to plumb—or do I mean, beyond Balthazar’s capacity to plumb? In any case, only Balthazar demonstrates the perfect humility of Jesus that Christianity calls upon its members to emulate.
The same year as Au hasard Balthazar, Bresson also made Mouchette, from Georges Bernanos, a wonderful film about a human Balthazar, an abused rural teenager, who, experiencing rare liberty, rolls off a hill into a river and drowns herself.
Both are exacting in their vision of human nature and among the most compassionate films ever made.
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