Nov 12, 2008

16th Nov 2008 ; screening of Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar

Au Hasard Balthazar
A film by Robert Bresson
Year : 1966
Country : France

French with English sub titles Run time : 95 miin
16th Nov 2008 ; 5.45 pm
Asshwin hospital Auditorium

Additional screenings
1. An introduction by film scholar Donald Ritchie
2. A French TV introductory show about the film featuring Rober Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, Louis Malle and members of cast and crew of this film.

Robert Bresson is one of the saints of the cinema, and "Au Hasard Balthazar" (1966) is his most heartbreaking prayer. The film follows the life of a donkey from birth to death, while all the time living it the dignity of being itself--a dumb beast, noble in its acceptance of a life over which it has no control. Balthazar is not one of those cartoon animals that can talk and sing and is a human with four legs. Balthazar is a donkey, and it is as simple as that.

Bresson's greatest masterpiece, one of the best films ever made, is an astonishing simple tale about innocence and purity in the harsh world of reality. It's a profoundly heart-breaking human-nature drama about animal as the holy one. This stark parable features a donkey in rural France who is given the name of Balthazar (one of the Three Wise Men) by his gentle first keeper Marie, daughter of a recalcitrant teacher prone to making the same mistakes over and over. As Balthazar's passed onto different owners he will be a witness to mankind's cruelty as well as being a victim (receiving beatings and having tricks played on him--firecrackers tied to his tail and set off). Balthazar takes mankind's ignorance in with a reserved calm and silence, not understanding what is happening but remaining grounded in his pure nature as a noble beast of burden throughout. Filmed in revealing close-ups and viewed as poetry, this intense, unsentimental and pleasantly droll humored film is imbued with a magical quality that transcends its everyday ordinariness.

According to Bresson, as written by James Hoberman in his Village Voice review, "the tale was inspired by a passage in Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" where Prince Myshkin tells three giggling girls of the happiness he experienced upon hearing the sound of a donkey's bray in a foreign marketplace."
A donkey becomes the perfect Bresson character. Balthazar makes no attempt to communicate its emotions to us, and it comunicates its physical feelings only in universal terms: Covered ith snow, it is cold. Its tail set afire, it is frightened. Eating its dinner, it is content. Overworked, it is exhausted. Returning home, it is relieved to find a familiar place. Although some humans are kind to it and others are cruel, the motives of humans are beyond its understanding, and it accepts what they do because it must.

Now here is the essential part. Bresson suggests that we are all Balthazars. Despite our dreams, hopes and best plans, the world will eventually do with us whatever it does. Because we can think and reason, we believe we can figure a way out, find a solution, get the answer. But intelligence gives us the ability to comprehend our fate without the power to control it. Still, Bresson does not leave us empty-handed. He offers us the suggestion of empathy. If we will extend ourselves to sympathize with how others feel, we can find the consolation of sharing human experience, instead of the loneliness of enduring it alone.

In fact, save for L'Argent, Balthazar is Bresson's richest, fullest, most complex film. Its pace is extraordinary (the first five minutes alone contain a fully realized and wonderful pre-story) and its form is epic (even though it's only 95 minutes long). Balthazar's sorrowful journey is paralleled by Marie's (Anne Wiazemsky), as she oscillates between purity (Jacques [Walter Green]) and evil (Gerard [Francois Lafarge]). There has never been made a film that is more pure, subversive or reflective of the human condition.

Robert Bresson has claims to being one of the cinema's true geniuses. An exquisite stylist, he created a cinematic language onto himself. His films are both light and profound, both severe and tender, both bleak and life-affirming. Au Hasard, Balthazar is masterpiece in a body of work full of great films.

Robert Bresson

Robert Bresson’s 13 features over 40 years constitute arguably the most original and brilliant body of work over a long career from a film director in the history of cinema. He is the most idiosyncratic and uncompromising of all major filmmakers, in the sense that he always tried to create precisely what he wanted without surrendering to considerations of commerce, audience popularity, or people’s preconceptions of what cinema should be. And although it might be argued that his venture into colour from Une Femme douce (1969) onwards was probably against his better judgement, he shows mastery in its use.

Born in central France and educated in Paris, Bresson’s early ambition was to be a painter. He ventured into filmmaking with the short Les Affaires publiques (1934), a satire with nods to Clair and Vigo, which was rediscovered in the 1980s after being thought lost. After a year or so as a prisoner-of-war he was approached by a Paris priest with a proposal for a film about the Bethany order of nuns, which became Les Anges du péché (1943). His next feature was also made during the Occupation, and filmmaking had by then definitely supplanted painting. The confusion over his date of birth, symbolic perhaps of his reclusive nature, caused reviewers of his final filmL’Argent (1983) to marvel over how a man "in his late 70s" or alternatively "in his 80s" could show such youthful exuberance in his filmmaking.

Three formative influences in Bresson’s life undoubtedly mark his films: his Catholicism, which took the form of the predestinarian French strain known as Jansenism; his early years as a painter; and his experiences as a prisoner-of-war. These influences manifest themselves respectively in the recurrent themes of free-will versus determinism, in the extreme and austere precision with which he composes a shot, and in the frequent use of the prison motif (two films are located almost entirely inside prisons).

All Bresson’s features after the first have literary antecedents of one form or another, albeit updated. Two are from Dostoevsky (Une Femme douceand Quatre nuits), two from Bernanos (Journal and Mouchette), one from Tolstoy (L’Argent), one from Diderot (Les Dames), while Un Condamné and Le Procès are based on the written accounts of the true events. In addition Pickpocket is clearly influenced by Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Balthazar has a similar premiss to the same author’s The Idiot. Lancelot du Lac is derived from Malory’s Arthurian legends, while Le Diable probablement (1977) was inspired by a newspaper report, as is stated at the start of the film. A long-standing unrealised project was a film of the Book of Genesis (Genèse), but Bresson reportedly said that, unlike the human "models", he was unable to train the animals to do as they were told!

A critic once wrote that Mizoguchi’s Sansho Dayu (1954) "is one of those films for whose sake the cinema exists". For many of us, the same can be said of the work of Robert Bresson.

(Source : Roger Ebert , Senses Of Cinema , Ozu's World Movie Reviews )

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