You won’t read about Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar in any art history book. You won’t go to a museum to see his work on display or study his theory about actors as models. Unless you go looking for cinematic art of the caliber of Bresson’s reflection of man’s nature through the story of a donkey and his seven owners, no one will force you to watch Balthazar, in hopes of enriching your culture and appreciation of art. Unfortunately, it’s likely that Balthazar is as lost on today’s audience as the saintly donkey that bears man’s burdens on his back only to be beaten, neglected and, finally, rejected.
Granted, the story of a donkey Christ figure is laughably pretentious. Except in Bresson’s hands, the heavy metaphor isn’t the point of the film, but rather its driving force. There’s no mystery in the donkey Balthazar’s role in the film. Early on he is baptized, called a saint, dons a crown of flowers, an allegorical crown of thorns, and is bound by the coarse bridles of man’s burdens, be it the harness at a winery or carting bags of smuggled goods. While many films hide their metaphors under convoluted plots and characterizations, Balthazar wears its symbolism on its sleeve, which is also seen in the film’s other characters. There is no time spent wondering about the role or motives of the young girl whose innocence is violently lost but remains in love. She is just that and nothing more; just as her prideful father or the town drunk. The depth of Bresson’s film isn’t in the archetypal characters, but how they interact with each other and the world. We don’t relate to any of the characters’ archetypes, especially the donkey, but we can sympathize with what they stand for, as they each represent an extreme of human experience. At some point in time, we have been one of these characters in some regard.
The way we come to understand how the aspects of the characters’ behavioral traits correspond with our own dynamic personalities is through Bresson’s unique view of the world. Stark, contrasting frames focusing on hands and feet fill as much, if not more, screen time as the actors’ faces. Bresson’s unambiguous use of hands unites the archetypal characters by creating a uniform visual motif. While it might not be the same character making a flower crown for Balthazar as the one who lights his tail on fire, it’s all done through the use of the common extremity. The same could be said for the shots of feet, or hooves in Balthazar’s case, walking over discarded wood and rubble or naked at night in a soft meadow. Still, there are also times where these focused shots help Bresson in more routine ways, like creating tension when a police officer enters the room of a suspected murderer, but those moments are quickly contrasted off a similar shot of a different character.
As Bresson allows us to observe our own nature through a handful of characters, the unflinching Balthazar suffers through our faults as the personification of our spiritual beliefs. While the outlook may be bleak, given that the majority of our Christ-figure’s owners mistreat him — not feeding, overworking and generally beating him — the steadiness of Balthazar is the ray of hope. Although we might mistreat and lose our faith at times, our beliefs still exist as a steady constant in a cruel world. It can help us with the weight on our shoulders and will return to us if we truly love it, just as Balthazar continually returns to young Marie, the only owner who ever truly shows any love for the donkey.
As Balthazar lies down in a shepherd’s field and passes unceremoniously out of a life of suffering, there’s an oddly comforting moment when a herd of sheep encircles the donkey while being corralled by a pair of barking dogs. It’s a final testament to keeping our faith and beliefs close to us in a world of anger and fear. It’s cinema at its most powerful and it’s likely to never to be viewed by the majority of modern day moviegoers. No mass marketing is going to force them to it. No sense of conformity will lead them to it. It’s a cinematic experience that deserves to be discover for those who want more than what they are told to watch.