To cut to the chase, Robert Bresson’s heartbreaking and magnificent Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)—the story of a donkey’s life and death in rural France—is the supreme masterpiece by one of the greatest of 20th-century filmmakers. Bringing together all Bresson’s highly developed ideas about acting, sound, and editing as well as grace, redemption, and human nature, Balthazar is understated and majestic, sensuous and ascetic, ridiculous and sublime. It would be a masterpiece for its soundtrack alone. Before the credits are over, solemn Schubert is interrupted by a prolonged hee-haw.
Three children baptize a baby donkey and thereby give him a soul. This innocence lasts about five minutes: A brief montage has Balthazar hitched, shod, and sentenced to a lifetime of labor. Marie, the girl who names him, grows up somber and slack jawed, regarding the world with a kindred steady gaze. Meanwhile, Balthazar is sold and resold; he’s saved by a drunken vagabond named Arnold; he briefly joins the circus (a truly magical interlude) and falls into the hands of the town miser (novelist Pierre Klossowski), who emerges from the midst of a teenage bacchanal in an example of Bresson’s unfailingly brilliant method of introducing characters.
Oblique as it is, Bresson’s narrative hints at an immense story involving betrayal, theft, even murder. But its real concern is the state of being. Crowned with flowers, spooked by firecrackers, struck without cause, Balthazar bears patient witness to all manner of enigmatic human behavior. This expressionless donkey is the most eloquent of creatures—he is pure existence, and his death, in the movie’s transfixing final sequence, conveys the sorrow that all existence shares.