Au Hasard Balthazar, dir. Robert Bresson (Artificial Eye reissue)
If I tell you that this film was made in 1966 by a Catholic director, that it is in French with subtitles, that it is in black and white, that it tells the story of a humble donkey from birth to death, and that it’s the sort of film which demands repeated viewing (the plot being less important than the presentation), you might decide to give it a miss. But let me add that it is frequently voted by film devotees and critics alike as one of the best ten films ever made, and that it makes you reconsider not only how we view and treat animals, but how we relate to the world we live in.
In the first, idyllic sequence, we see the baby donkey, born on a farm, being adopted by Marie, the daughter of a schoolteacher. She and Jacques, the son of the farmer, decide to baptise him ‘Balthazar’. Apart from the fact that that name has Biblical connotations (he was one of the three wise men who visited the infant Jesus), there is the suggestion that the donkey has now been given a proper identity – a soul, perhaps?
Most of the film from then on concerns Balthazar growing up and being put to hard, unremitting work. If the first sequence showed us an earthly paradise, we have now entered the wilderness of this world. With the death of his daughter, the farmer loses interest in the farm, and Marie’s father takes it over. Balthazar is sold into a life of toil, neglect and cruelty: he works intermittently for a baker, for a corn merchant and for the owner of a circus, and at one point is appropriated by an alcoholic tramp, who mistreats him as badly as do all the rest.
As Marie matures, she grows less and less concerned for Balthazar’s fate. This is due to the influence of Gerard, the leader of a rural gang. If we’ve been in the Garden of Eden and are now wandering through the wilderness, he takes the role of the tempting serpent. He represents the ‘Fall’. Marie is besotted by him, but he exploits and abuses her. Thus her role as victim parallels that of Balthazar, whose task is simply to endure all the torments that are inflicted on him.
Gerard it is who is responsible for the donkey’s death. ‘Borrowing’ him for a smuggling trip, and pursued by the police, he abandons the animal after it has been shot. In the final sequence, we see Balthazar the next day making his painful way into a field full of sheep, where he dies. This is one of the most celebrated sequences in cinematic history.
We’ve already noted that the donkey’s name has Biblical connotations; we’ve already mentioned Eden and the Fall. With the film’s close, we might say that Balthazar takes on a role reminiscent of Jesus, the sacrificial victim who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey prior to his arrest and crucifixion, and who is called paradoxically both ‘lamb’ and ‘shepherd’. The film takes the form of religious parable.
But what does it tell us? One point it makes is that to hurt our fellow non-human creatures is to lessen our own humanity. The silent, suffering donkey exposes the aggression and arrogance to which we are all prone. Every time I see this film, I think of St Francis of Assisi, who insisted that Christian charity must extend to animals, and who used to refer fondly to ‘Brother Donkey’.
The other main lesson is conveyed by the cinematic technique of Bresson: it encourages us to contemplate the world we live in, in all its detail and variety. The camera dwells continually on details: a cart’s wheel, a door, a bench, a hand; most of all, the patient, impassive face of the donkey. The director once stated: ‘The supernatural in film is only the real rendered more precise: real things seen close up.’ It is by looking carefully at the world in which Balthazar makes his way that we can learn the lesson of compassion – not by speculating about some far-off heaven.
The unanswered question it leaves us with, of course, is this: what was the meaning of Balthazar’s life? The answer is up to the viewer who is prepared to spare an hour and a half in his inscrutable presence.