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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La fable universelle coule comme une source tout le long de l'oeuvre prodigieusement belle, simple évidente. Au delà du cinéma, Robert Bresson peint le monde dans toute sa crapulerie. La naïveté est balayée, sous les yeux de Balthazar, le témoin indépendant, dont la figure animale nous trouble tant elle est en dehors de ce monde de sauvages, de lâches et de démons. Balthazar for ever et le génie pour 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.*
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:
'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."
In some ways aren't we all Balthazar? Subject to the whims, cruelty and inert qualities of others. Bresson's powerful and timeless film examines the life of a donkey and the humans whose possession he is. Beautiful editorial construction, cinematography and Schubert music make this essential cinema. Performances are naturalistic and expressive especially Anne Wiazemsky as Marie who goes through her own trials.
Without a doubt, the finest donkey film ever made. A true masterpiece (and i don't use that term frequently) by one of cinema's greatest masters of tragedy. In case you were wondering, "au hasard" is a French idiom meaning "by chance". This isn't just the greatest donkey film ever made (yes, there are lots of donkey films, believe it or not), it is one of the greatest films of all. On my personal top ten.
There are remarks on how bland, how one dimensional the characters all are. What Bresson has done here is an exception, he does not resort to close-up cute shots of the donkey, instead, he draws our attention away from the characters, in doing so we realise that the donkey is pure.