Year of Release: 1966 Directed by Robert Bresson. Starring Anne Wiazemsky, Walter Green, Philippe Asselin, and Nathalie Joyaut.
The Donkey by G. K. Chesterton:
“When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.”
I would not be surprised if director Robert Bresson had that poem in mind when he made Au Hasard Balthazar, because there is a remarkable similarity between Chesterton’s poem and this film. (As a disclaimer: I also started with that poem, because I feel completely incapable of writing about a film this powerful and haunting.)
After being baptized as a foal by three zealous children, throughout his lifetime Balthazar (the donkey) silently witnesses the full gamut of human behavior: compassion, brutality, neglect, justice. Regardless of how he is treated, Balthazar never changes, nor can he. He is a beast of labor for some, a beloved companion and pet for a few, and for others he is an object to abuse who will never retaliate.
Balthazar’s simplicity and ability to serve brings out the best in some and the worst in others. Why? We never find out. Why does the father place so much pride in his honor that he neglects all his other responsibilities? Why does the village bully so cruelly abuse whomever he can? Why are the town drunk and the shy girl the only ones who appreciate Balthazar? It’s all haphazard, by chance, or au hasard. There is certainly much suffering depicted in this film, and I don’t entirely blame anyone who dislikes it on those grounds, but there are also rare moments of grace and beauty. All of which is hauntingly captured by Bresson, haphazardly fading from one episode in Balthazar’s life to another, one beautiful, the next ugly, joy followed by suffering. What is the purpose of all the suffering? It’s not always clear, but regardless of his pain Balthazar remains with his monstrous cry, simplicity, and ability to serve. The only change is the way others choose to behave around him, choices that all too often seem senselessly spurred by chance.
Content Advisory: An off-screen rape, intense animal cruelty, fleeting rear nudity, and unsettling depictions of brutality and suffering throughout – all depictions fairly restrained. Not rated.
Suggested Audience: Teens and up
Personal Recommendation: A+