Ranking: #37/111

Director: Robert Bresson (France)            

Genre: Allegorical Social Drama

Au Hasard Balthazar is a revered film which may be described as an allegorical fable about the life and death of a donkey. As always, Bresson has put together a minimalist work of art in his usual austere style. But this time, the effect seems to carry much more emotion than in other well-known films by Bresson, like A Man Escaped, Pickpocket and L’Argent.

The film is a rural drama which follows the fortunes of the donkey called Balthazar and its various owners as it is passed from one owner to the next. So often, though, the donkey is treated cruelly, and used as a beast of burden by taskmasters who have little, or no, empathy for the creature.

Bresson studies the different characters who own, or mistreat, Balthazar through the eyes of the animal and the result is a thoroughly misanthropic view of humanity. Many of the characters turn out to be avaricious, materialistic, mean-spirited and capricious.

Bresson wrote in his notebooks: “Be a precision instrument myself.” (Bresson, R, 1975. Notes on the Cinematograph, p. 5) and “Be precise in form.” (Bresson, R, 1975. Notes on the Cinematograph, p. 82). In Au Hasard Balthazar the director uses sound and imagery sparingly. He is almost forensic and clinical in depicting the story, the settings and the plot with precise details and timing. This was part of his documentary-like filming style that was as distinctive and individualistic as Ozu’s. He never fitted into the French New Wave, or into any other of the European cinematic movements. He was always an auteur filmmaker, like Antonioni, Bergman and Tarkovsky.

The film’s closing scene, when the donkey lies down and dies from a gunshot wound and from sheer exhaustion, is deeply affecting. For me, it is one of the most touching and heart-stirring scenes I’ve ever seen in my decades of watching films. The way Balthazar submits to death mirrors the way the creature submitted to its burdensome existence and to the blows from its cruel owners. There is some clear symbolism here. Bresson is representing the prophetic idea in the Bible of the suffering servant as fulfilled in Christ’s mission and passion. Given Bresson’s Catholicism, however mystical his form of faith may have been, this seems to be a plausible interpretation of the meaning of this fable about an innocent and abused animal. The donkey has passed through the stations of the cross, borne the pain of humanity’s cruelty and sin, and then submitted to a sacrificial death in the service of others.

As strange as it may sound, Au Hasard Balthazar is one of the most compelling “religious” films ever made.