Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

When one tries to explain Robert Bresson, most of his films sound dull. His minimalist style, simple image play and straightforward stories don’t elicit the easy and flowery praise that can be heaped upon most great directors. That makes his work all the more powerful and mysterious because Bresson is easily one of the finest film directors, imbuing his work with grace, humanity and warmth.

And yet, that’s the very thing that Bresson spent hours trying to beat out of his actors, making them act out one scene over and over again until any energy, liveliness and acting they might have is gone, all that is left is a weary and stilted performance. And this is what makes so many of the performances in Au Hasard Balthazar powerful.

And perhaps the greatest achievement is that somehow Bresson imbues the titular character with grace and sorrow, a character that for all intents and purposes is not an actor. For Balthazar is a donkey, a beast of burden that serves various owners throughout his lifetime. His life is often hard, his masters are often harsh and his work is often more than he should have to bear.

Balthazar does not give a rousing performance, but Bresson understands film well enough to hue and shape the film to elevate the trials of a donkey beyond a simple series of vignettes. Bresson’s use of montage, not in the rapid escalation of conflict but more in the synthesis of two images into an idea that exists in neither frame, raises Balthazar to a mythic figure, one the film even calls saintly.

Through the play of images, the power of editing and the psychology of the human mind, Balthazar becomes more than just a simple beast. He becomes a symbol of humility, a call to a life of servitude, a wordless creature that spends his days doing the will of his master. But, more than anything else, he becomes the bearer of pain, taking on the aggression and cruelty of his various masters.

This has led many to call Au Hasard Balthazar an allegory of Christ’s suffering. The donkey is the animal that Jesus rides into Jerusalem on, and the film does parallel some of the details of Christ’s sufferings, such as when Balthazar is pierced in his side. And while the potential for the religious interpretation is there, Balthazar himself seems a figure imbued more with a suffering of the world in general.

And while Balthazar is the heart of the film, he doesn’t detract from the stories he exists around. The various people who own Balthazar all have their own trials as well as their own vices. While certain characters recur through the story, the film leaves more impressions, often leaving characters when a new chapter of their life begins, almost as if Balthazar’s presence is a turning point in the lives of his owners.

Bresson crafts a fine film, but it’s the personal connection that trumps his filmmaking. Does one buy into the suffering of this donkey, or is it all pointless, simply an excuse to get cheap tears from the audience? Personally, it’s a deeply moving experience. And even then, the portrait of human suffering is universal, both in the humans the film follows for the time and the hard life of Balthazar.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing