Au Hasard Balthazar
A film by Robert Bresson
1966/ France/ 95 minutes
21st Feb 2016/ 5.45 p.m / Peks mini theater
Great French master Robert Bresson is one of the saints of the cinema, and "Au Hasard Balthazar" (1966) is his most heartbreaking prayer. The film's title character/protagonist is a donkey -- not a humanoid, Disney donkey but a realistic animal who, in the film's opening sequence, is adopted by three young children in rural southern France and "baptized" in their own makeshift religious ceremony.
Balthazar is a farm animal - a donkey - born into a life of servitude: a beast of burden destined to work the land, carry bales of hay and provide occasional transportation. His harsh, often exploited existence is paralleled through the life of Marie, a reticent young woman whose father has been asked to maintain a friend's farm. The owner's son, Jacques, returns to the farm to profess his support for Marie's father, whose reputation has been ruined by debt and rumors surrounding the ownership of the farm. Jacques is devoted to Marie, but Marie is drawn to Gerard, a cruel young man. Meanwhile Balthazar's ownership passes hands to a baker and to Gerard and so on.
French new wave film maker Godard’s famous claim that Au hasard Balthazar is “the world in an hour and a half” suggests how dense, how immense Bresson’s brief, elliptical tale about the life and death of a donkey is. The film’s steady accumulation of incident, characters, mystery, and social detail, its implicative use of sound, offscreen space, and editing, have the miraculous effect of turning the director’s vaunted austerity into endless plenitude, which is perhaps the central paradox of Bresson’s cinema. So concentrated and oblique is Balthazar, it achieves the density, to extend Godard’s metaphor just a little, of an imploded nova.
Au Hasard Balthazar is a haunting, subtly disturbing, and thematically uncompromising portrait of man's innate cruelty and destructive impulses. Through the transfiguration of a mistreated animal as an allegorical symbol of virtue, purity, and redemption, Robert Bresson creates a visually spare and indelible film of startling intensity: the symbolic image of Marie, Gerard, and Balthazar in the snow; the framed shot of a humiliated Marie against the back closet of the farmhouse; the final, sublime shot of Balthazar with the grazing sheep. Alone in the countryside, wandering and without direction, Balthazar finds a place of peace...his sanctuary. (Source: Internet)
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.
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.