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Au Hasard Balthazar

June 17, 2012

Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
Director: Robert Bresson
Actors: Anne Wiazemsky, François Lafarge, Philippe Asselin

Synopsis: A donkey, Balthazar, is passed between various members (some kindly, some malign) of a French rural community over a number of years.

Review: The seminal piece of work from arguably the greatest filmmaker of all time feels like a primal, timeless document on the lapsed morality of mankind. It’s like a modern, pastoral “Paradise Lost” and is at times breathtakingly poetic and beautiful, yet also brutally material and austere. Godard was absolutely right when he tagged Au Hasard Balthazar “the world in ninety minutes” and the central dialectic of having the orb of humanity spun around the poignant dignity of a working donkey is pure inspiration. Au Hasard Balthazar certainly says much more about spirituality and the ‘Christian way’, than recent, more overtly religious works like Mel Gibson’s infantile The Passion of the Christ.

Bresson brilliantly selects Balthazar as his story’s conduit although he isn’t necessarily the obvious focal point of every scene. At various stages Balthazar is a family pet, a carthorse on some farmland, a brutalised ‘runner’ for a young man’s bread delivery business, a circus donkey, and finally and most tragically of all, a drug mule. This roving canvas of functions makes Balthazar something of a silent witness and de facto commentator on the state of mankind. And by following Balthazar and not the human stories of greed, criminality and petty politics that surround him, Bresson slowly transmits that it is Balthazar’s example of loyalty, sustenance and grace that is noble and permanent – not the transient agendas and neuroses of the people around him.

Bresson films this story lovingly and tenderly: his famed mastery of sound is to the fore, with the whistling wind, the lyrical voice of a gentle young girl, the rural echoes of sheep-bells, and the baying of Balthazar himself, communicating more than an army of orchestral musicians in the modern-day film factory could. This ethos reaches its perfect conclusion in the immeasurably poignant closing scene where (spoiler alert) Balthazar gracefully takes himself off to die in an isolated mountain meadow after having been shot on one of his sorties for the drug runners. (June 2012)

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