Tuesday, April 03, 2007


AU HASARD BALTHAZAR ("Balthazar, By Luck," 1966, France, Robert Bresson)
Bresson: It is about our anxieties and desires when faced with a living creature who's completely humble, completely holy, and happens to be a donkey.

When the Museum of Modern Art announced "The Hidden God," a major faith and film series featuring titles as diverse as MAGNOLIA, ANDREI ROUBLEV and GROUNDHOG DAY, the curators said the one film which clearly had to be included was Robert Bresson's masterpiece, AU HASARD BALTHAZAR. The New York Times called ├čit "one of the greatest films in history, and Andrew Sarris wrote "No film I have ever seen has come so close to convulsing my entire being. Bresson's Christian spirituality finds its most earthy, layered and life-giving expression. Grace has never been dramatized more lucidly, or more movingly, than it is here."

Not bad for a donkey movie. This unadorned 95-minute story follows the young colt's adoption as a family pet, through the hands of many masters, to the moment of his eventual death. It is a fragmentary portrait of a French village in the mid-sixties, tracing the interwoven lives of eight characters. It's a study of human weakness and cruelty, it's a portrait of Christ the suffering servant, it's the heart-breaking story of a young girl's descent from innocence to despair. But above all, it's a movie about a donkey.

Robert Bresson was a French Catholic who made his greatest and most deeply Christian films in the two decades following World War Two. Afficionados would be hard-pressed to choose his masterpiece – A MAN ESCAPED, DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST, THE TRIAL OF JOAN OF ARC and PICKPOCKET all have their advocates – but it is AU HASARD BALTHAZAR that may be his most resonant and most profoundly spiritual work. It is certainly his most affecting. Watch film scholar Donald Richie come close to tears as he describes the film's final moments on one of the special feature tracks of the new Criterion DVD: "The combination of something awful and something wonderful going together defeats any critical acumen I may have. It reduces me to an emotional human being – which I think was Bresson's intention in making this picture."

This director had no interest in merely making movies, which he thought of as filmed plays, hybrid creations cobbled together from other art forms. He was intent on forging a pure and completely new form which would have a unique capacity to evoke distinctly spiritual responses. He shot his most distinctive films in stark black and white, focusing his camera on repetitive physical activities and dreary, impoverished locales. We watch feet and hands, not expressive faces. His soundtracks are mostly silence, punctuated by mundane sounds, usually off-camera: footsteps, the clank of metal on stone, a braying donkey or a clanking harness bell juxtaposed against the brashness of a transistor radio or a harsh motorcycle engine.

Bresson's story-telling style was just as sparse: he pruned away explanations of behaviour, standard plot set-ups and obvious emotional build-ups to the point where we're frequently unsure of what exactly is going on in a given scene. "We must let the mystery remain. Life is mysterious, and we should see that on-screen. The effects of things must always be shown before their cause, like in real life. We're unaware of the causes of most of the events we witness. We see the effects and only later discover the cause." In Bresson's world we feel like children (or animals?) viewing the baffling behaviour of adults: not understanding the context or background of what's unfolding in front of us, we pay fierce attention to every nuance of every interaction, fine-tuned to emotion and implication and barely-grasped subtext.

Bresson's characters were the plainest of all his elements, ordinary people with small lives and petty, terrible troubles and vices: self-preoccupation, pride, faithlessness, suspicion, cold-heartedness and all the small cruelties that flesh is heir to. Bresson hated artificial or self-conscious effects, and would run his non-professional actors through a scene as many as fifty times before filming, so they would stop interpreting and simply live the scene. (Perhaps a donkey was Bresson's ideal performer!)

All this makes Bresson sound cold and inhuman, unapproachable and difficult. That's certainly his reputation: just try and find an article about his work that doesn't use the word "austere." But surprisingly, viewers who can set aside their usual expectations often find these pictures extremely powerful – far more accessible than, say, Bergman or Tarkovsky. Even on first viewing, I found A MAN ESCAPED the most stomach-knotting prison-break film I'd ever seen, its painful tension due to a million factors, not least of which was the film's utter realism: the director's claustrophobic concentration on the physical realities of the prison, the stone and iron and silence, convinced me not only that this was a true story but even that it was actually happening. DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST aroused such immense compassion in me for its odd and introverted fledgling priest, ostracized by his parish and crushed by physical and spiritual agonies, that I felt I was witnessing an anonymous martyrdom as heroic as the early Christians or more famous saints.

But it's "the donkey movie" that haunts me most, though I can hardly say why. Perhaps this is part of its power: there is something about AU HASARD BALTHAZAR you can't quite get hold of. It arouses deep feeling and an undeniable sense of Mystery, but when you try to describe it (or even more wrong-headedly, to explain it), the words seem to miss the point.

Bresson devotees will cringe when I say it, but the film shares part of its appeal with the Disney nature films of the same era, the privilege we feel watching animals doing animal things. There's a childlikeness in creatures, and a childlikeness is uncovered in us when we spend time with them: some essential empathy comes into play, we recover something that eludes us as adults and become more deeply human. C.S. Lewis was right when he said that much of our nature – and, indeed, a profoundly good part of our nature – is shared with the beasts. We may be animals with spirits, but we're animals nevertheless.

Still, in most ways the two sorts of animal movie couldn't be more different. Disney gives us the winsome antics of cute critters, complete with warm-voiced narration to explain their behaviour and let us in on their "thoughts," making their animal subjects almost human. But Balthazar is above all a donkey: there's no Shrekking or Eeyoring here. Instead of bringing the animal closer to us, letting us imagine that he's more human than we would have thought, Bresson takes us closer to the animal, and we realize how "not human" he is – and how inhuman our world looks through his eyes. Bresson immerses us in life as a donkey experiences it, and instead of identifying with the creature because he's almost human, we identify with him because we're almost animals. (Back to Lewis – isn't there something profoundly Christian about being reminded that we are, after all, common and lowly creatures ourselves? Fashioned by a Creator?)

But this is not just the story of a donkey. The gentle-eyed Balthazar is always there, and the fact that we can't quite get hold of the human stories around him – they're told in such a fractured, fragmented way – keeps him at the film's emotional centre. Still, those human characters are intriguing, especially Marie, a luminously beautiful, achingly vulnerable girl (think Scarlet Johannesen) whose spirited resistance to her oppressive circumstances coexists with a self-destructive attraction to men who use and mistreat her. She gives herself to Gerard, a petty small-town punk who's the runt of the litter of black-leather-jacketed angry young men of the era, a down-market James Dean. He's no big deal: his "wild ones" ride around on a less-than-intimidating collection of mopeds and ten speed bikes. No major league Bad Guy, Gerard is small, venal, selfish, mean. But it's precisely his commonness that makes him really troubling: that is Bresson's vision of evil; ordinary, everyday, pervasive. Believable. Real. There may be only one Brando in the world, but there are thousands of Gerards, and thousands of Maries.

At one point, Gerard and his cronies light firecrackers in the street outside a party that will soon turn violent, and Marie's mother voices our bafflement: "What do you see in that boy?" Marie's answer explains nothing, but tells everything: "I love him. Do we know why we love someone? If he says 'come,' I come. 'Do this,' and I do it. I'd follow him anywhere. If he asked me to, I'd kill myself for him." A firecracker explodes, we see Balthazar flinch, and a whole constellation of dreadful, fateful connections is made between girl and donkey.

Above all, this is an Easter film. I think of Mel Gibson's PASSION: both directors focus unflinchingly on a blameless sacrificial victim, mistreated by those who have power over his life, a victim who endures cruel things at their hands and for their sake as he trudges resolutely forward to fulfill his purpose in the world. (Bresson remarked that the donkey's owners represent the various vices that bring about Balthazar's suffering and death.) Christ's torments are extraordinarily violent, compressed into twelve or fifteen hours, while Balthazar's are casual and sustained, a lifelong via dolorosa of mundane cruelties. I see here the Suffering Servant I saw in Kurosawa's IKIRU (it's no coincidence that both films draw inspiration from Dostoevsky), quietly bearing grievous burdens as he sets out in obedience to do the task before him, whatever the cost.

Though the film is rich with resonances to the life of Jesus – the Nativity, Palm Sunday, the last supper, Calvary – AU HASARD BALTHAZAR is no straightforward allegory of a donkey-Saviour. His death goes unremarked, saves no one, atones for nothing. But does Balthasar remind us of Christ? Absolutely, and with a simplicity and profundity that stirs us and stays with us long after more direct portrayals have faded from from our hearts and memories.


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