Au Hasard Balthazar

Rick Maddocks

Au Hasard Balthazar is a forty-year-old film about a donkey. Not only that, a suffering donkey saint. This is no sweet Disney animal picture, full of sentimental personification, but neither is it religious pornography like The Passion of the Christ. Set beside these two popular extremes, the film is from another, far more mysterious planet. It is a serious, absurd, heartbreaking and wonderfully strange work created by Robert Bresson in 1966, and it is finally available in North America on DVD (Criterion). From the opening credits, in which Schubert’s elegant Piano Sonata No. 2 is interrupted by the loud noise of a donkey braying, the film unfolds into many things at once—an animal picture, a parable about human cruelty, a coming-of-age story, a tour de force of visual storytelling and a religious allegory, albeit a very complex one. Balthazar is a donkey who is subjected to the actions of his all-too-human owners, and who acts as witness, victim and conscience. After his idyllic “childhood” with the young Marie and her family, he passes through a succession of masters including a drunk suspected of murder, a baker and his wife, and a local miser. Balthazar’s trials and occasional lighter moments parallel the life of Marie, who grows into a melancholy young woman often mistreated—sometimes willingly—by the local nasty and his gang. Balthazar witnesses the sins—greed, pride, cruelty, lust, hatred—of the humans he meets and endures them all with humility and grace. As in many of his seemingly simple films, Robert Bresson uses non-professional actors, unusual and repeated shots of hands and feet, bold cuts, elliptical treatment of time, idiosyncratic sound and minimal dialogue to create a panoramic vision of human nature. Strikingly beautiful picturesque shots in his films are few and far between: beauty and meaning lie in the combination of images and sounds. The ending of Au Hasard Balthazar could surprise you: on his last journey, near a border crossing, Balthazar goes uphill carrying his burden of contraband goods, and as the strains of Schubert’s piano sonata return once more, the threads of the narrative converge to form a deeply moving and memorable final scene in a hillside field.

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Rick Maddocks

Rick Maddocks has been widely published in anthologies and magazines. He has also written and performed music with The Beige, an atmospheric roots quintet whose second album, El Ángel Exterminador, was released in 2010. His experimental gospel funk opera, The Meal, premiered at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival in 2011 and was restaged in Spring 2012 at Pacific Theatre. He is the author of Sputnik Diner (Vintage).


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