Chronicles the life and death of Balthazar, a donkey, from an idyllic childhood through to adulthood as a downtrodden beast of burden. An unfettered view of human cruelty, suffering and injustice, filtered through the eyes of a donkey.
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This work almost can't be overpraised. Two scenes are unique in cinema: one where the murderer Arnold takes his leave of the world before dropping dead, and one in which Balthazar stares at (and is stared back by) the other animals in their cages. Yet the circus performance by the "mathematical genius" Balthazar is very funny and charming. Not for nothing did Godard call this film "the world in an hour and a half."
The donkey eulogy has steady roots into the past. Watched Au Hasard few years ago, but after sailing with certain difficulty through Binka Zhelyazkova's subless and fascinating Tied Up Balloon, where the donkey stands for mental simplicity (or political simpletons, hence the censorship and the uproar it caused), I'll quote an excerpt from I.P. Culianu's Eros and Magic in Renaissance that marginally points at Bresson:
Watching this is a great (moral, philosophical and cinephile) exercise. 50 years have passed since Bresson's film came out and the way we think about animal suffering changed a lot. But not really our behaviour. We, mostly, have figured out what is right and wrong. Bresson, it seems to me, used Balthazar in a quasi-antropomorphic way and (above all) as a way to investigate human behaviour. Not how we treat animals.*
'Balthazar' is about man's inhumanity. He shows cruelty to animals because he wants you emotionally involved. His style is to use non-actors and to strip down the emotion. The exception is Anne Wiazemsky, who is full of emotion, which just emphasizes the inhumanity around her. "God does not forsake forever. He may punish, yet he will have compassion. He does not willingly afflict the children of men."