Au hasard Balthazar

Reviewed By Elaine Perrone
Posted 07/20/04 13:52:16

"Parable, Meditation, Masterpiece!"
5 stars (Awesome)

Its story unfolding to the haunting strains of a Schubert piano sonata and a donkey's braying, Robert Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar (At random, Balthazar) is a heartwrenching parable about sin and sorrow, a meditation on the randomness of chance that in large part determines the course any individual's life will take.

At its core, Balthazar is a study of the parallel paths of two such lives, those of a young girl, Marie, and the donkey she adopts, baptizes, and names Balthazar, who becomes her beloved companion and that of her childhood sweetheart, Jacques.

Marie's, Jacques', and Balthazar's happy lives are cut short, however, when Jacques' sister dies and his grief-stricken parents move away, leaving their farm in the custody of Marie's father. As the years pass, the jealousy of the townspeople and Marie's father's pride, which proves to be his great tragic flaw, turn their family into social outcasts and Marie into a joyless, timid young woman who falls under the thrall of the town's sociopathic gang-leader, Gerard, the picture of evil incarnate even when he is singing in the church choir.

Mirroring the falling fortunes of Marie's family, Balthazar is sold time and again as an increasingly brutalized workhorse, eventually ending up in the hands of Gerard, who tortures and torments the animal to near death, breaking Balthazar's body and spirit in much the same fashion he does with Marie. (Warning to animal lovers: Be prepared for an effective but almost unwatchable scene in which the sadistic Gerard attempts to speed up the donkey by tying a newspaper to his tail and setting a match to it, an excruciating display of man's inhumanity!)

Saved from certain death by another outcast, the town drunk Arnold, Balthazar gets a second chance at life just as Marie tries to salvage her own by extricating herself from Gerard. Both, though, remain commodities at the mercy of others, the one selling herself, the other sold.

Balthazar is filled with religious symbolism from the intensely Catholic Bresson, who imbues in the donkey a saintly, almost Christlike, capacity to bear witness to and absorb the sinful behavior around him. In counterpoint is the donkey-like (to paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard) Marie, a pathetic vessel for the travails of her surrounding world. (Another aside: Anne Wiazemsky, the actor who portrays Marie, later married Godard. The granddaughter of French novelist François Mauriac, she has gone on to become a respected writer in her own right.)

Personifying the modernity that Bresson so detested is the character of the despicable Gerard, decked out in leather jacket, astride a motor bike and packing a transistor radio blaring loud jazz.

Long unavailable, or accessible only via poor prints, Balthazar can now be seen in its original glory thanks to Rialto Pictures and subtitlist Lenny Borger, who have delivered this magnificent restoration of (again citing Godard) "the world in an hour and a half." Moving in the span of 90 minutes from the pure innocence of youth, to lives battered by circumstances and their own poor choices, to a brutalized soul finally finding a measure of peace in death, this is a masterpiece that will leave your senses reeling and your heart in shreds.

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