The greatness of Robert Bresson’s 1966 black and white film, Au Hasard Balthazar (which, translated, means something like Randomly Balthazar or By Chance Balthazar), comes not from only one aspect of it, nor even just a few. Virtually every aspect of the film reeks and resonates greatness, although, despite this being the near full consensus opinion of film lovers and critics alike, a reading of the criticism suggests it is one of the most poorly understood films.
This is because so many aspects of the film are based upon its most superficial qualities, rather than those deeper and more essential, even as the film achieves this depth in only 95 minutes. This economy occurs because the film focuses not on the superfluities of living, but only those things with resonance and meaning, the important and poetic moments that distill all else. And, oftentimes, those things with meaning are not the expected architectures of the human face, but those of other parts of the human body, like hands, backs, and human postures; all of which evoke connections and depths that would likely be unthinkable to cogitate on in films by other directors.
But before I get into this film’s essence, let me synopsize the narrative. The film is a picaresque ‘animal film,’ and I am an animal lover, so I am emotionally inclined to be favorable to any such film. Yet, when I write this fact of the film’s nature, I do not mean it in the way a film like My Dog Skip (a great ‘animal’ film aimed at children) is an ‘animal film.’ Au Hasard Balthazar goes above and beyond even that high level of art, for many reasons; yet one of the most manifest is that it is shorn of all sentimentalism, even that sort which is meant in a positive sense.
The film follows the life and death of a male donkey in the French countryside. Named and christened Balthazar by his first owner, a young girl named Marie, the donkey grows up, changes owners several times, and eventually ages. He bleeds nearly to death, seemingly dying on a hilltop, surrounded by a flock of sheep, after being accidentally shot at night, when he is stolen by the film’s villain, to transport illegal good across the French border. But, before that denouement, we get to see many slices of life: that of the donkey, its owners, and the people that are around it in the small village; even those things that are beyond the purview of the beast’s impassive eye.