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The passion of Bressonís Balthazar
Au hasard Balthazar (1966)
Directed and written by Robert Bresson. With Anne Wiazemsky, Françoise Lefarge, Philippe Asselin, Nathalie Joyaut, Walter Green, Jean-Claude Guilbert, Pierre Klossowski, François Sullerot, Marie-Claire Fremont. In French with English subtitles. A Rialto Pictures release (88 minutes). At the Kendall Square Cinema.

Lars von Trier suggests humans are dogs; Robert Bresson, a more gifted and spiritual artist, knows that donkeys are divine. At least Balthazar, the quadruped hero of one of the greatest religious movies ever made, is capable of a look of Olympian detachment, compassion, and forgiveness that would put most portrayers of Jesus to shame.

"He is intelligence itself," one character declares. "He is a saint," says another.

Irreverent? Absurd? Indeed, and thatís much of the filmís genius and inspiration. Not known for his sense of humor, Bresson opens the film with a bit of broad comedy (actually, the first image is of a stone wall; Bresson traditionally begins his films with an emblem of imprisonment and opacity). The gently melancholy Andantino from Schubertís Piano Sonata No. 20, which will soon become familiar as Balthazarís theme, reaches an exquisite phrase ó shattered by a donkeyís bray.

Not often, though, do Balthazar or Bresson make asses of themselves. This donkey must bear the burden of enlightenment in a fallen world. Heís not predetermined to this fate; no star singled him out. Rather, as the French title states, heís "Balthazar by chance," chosen not by God but by the whim of children at play. Marie and Jacques, childhood sweethearts, adopt him at birth and name him after the Magus of old, but this blessing grants him neither grace nor rejoicing. Instead, years of labor under an unthinking lash pass in a montage of trudging hooves and a single subtitle.

Marie (a Raphael-esque Anne Wiazemsky, Jean-Luc Godardís future wife) and Jacques (Walter Green) have not fared well, either. Now teenagers, they are estranged by a petty rift between their parents, not to mention Marieís recognition that Jacques is a dull boy. Marie also has learned that the world is a bad place, and sheís both disillusioned and attracted by this.

As with von Trier, women in Bressonís morality plays (which include Procés de Jeanne díArc, Mouchette, and La Femme Douce) can be passive, resigned, sometimes complicit victims of their non-comprehending tormentors. This is especially infuriating in the case of Marie. Although she is Balthazarís human counterpart ó a dumb innocent brutalized by vicissitude, vice, and cruelty ó her innocence is tainted by human traits of willfulness and sado-masochism.

Balthazar, though, remains pure even though hounded by personifications of the seven deadly sins. First, Pride, as Marieís father rejects reconciliation with his former friend out of vanity, causing Balthazar, and Marieís childish dreams, to be banished from their idyllic origins. Then Lust, as Marie falls for the cruel charms of Gerard (Françoise Lefarge) ó if there is a Satan in this picture, itís this sadistic, joyless seducer. Gluttony (or Drunkenness), Vanity, Wrath, Greed all follow, and Balthazar pays the price.

No Babe, this. Alhough Balthazar enjoys a delightful respite in middle age as a prodigy in a circus, his comforts are few. Even though he toils for a baker and a sot, the traditional balms of bread and wine are a burden and torment to him. Besides his weary back, the gift that Balthazar brings to his series of owners is transcendent stoicism, which they invariably decline.

What is his vindication, and the filmís purpose? Perhaps itís all in the point of view, that of a superior being with little concern for the melodramatic entanglements of the story (details of smuggling, murder, and treachery lurk in the background, but unlike Dogville, Bresson fills in the setting and leaves the plot in outline).

Balthazar, and Bresson, see characters as disembodied hands and feet or isolated objects of pain or comfort, with an occasional tilt up to a face crossed with pity, rage, or indifference. Vivid moments of abuse and comfort stand out, lulled to melancholy by montages of drudgery (Balthazar gets beaten as much as Jesus in The Passion, perhaps, but not as enthusiastically). Dissolves and dramatic blackouts divide these elliptical episodes, and the film unfolds like the pages of a book.

Seasons and years pass, people languish and die, with suddenness and inexorability, united by this holy brute. Unlike his namesake, Balthazar never attains an epiphany ó nor does he need one. His final scene, though, is ours. One of the most moving in cinema, oddly combining two motifs from Buñuel ó the bee-stung mule from Land Without Bread and the Dies Irae of The Exterminating Angel ó itís a consummation of ineffable beauty. Donít fight the tears.

Issue Date: April 9 - 15, 2004
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