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Criterion Review: Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

Balthazar is a service animal. Accordingly, he is beaten and burdened time and time again. His original caretaker Marie can relate: her life followed a similarly tragic path. As Balthazar is beaten by his owners, Marie is humiliated by a sadistic lover. Life is a cruel venture, Au Hasard Balthazar offers, and suffering through it with grace and dignity is seemingly the only way to transcend the brutality.

A tale of a donkey in rural France. Seemingly, nothing as compelling as the tale of a horse during the World War, but the message is the same. Balthazar's life is sequenced through his bucolic early days learning to take his first steps, all the way to his days of glory, finishing with his dying breath. We see life offered through the eyes of this animal, but never his   opinion of what transgressions occur. Too frequently animals on film are defined by a whinny, a trademark eye-roll, or clopping a hoof at a comedic time. Robert Bresson merely allows Balthazar to exist in front of us. Forcing the audience to intrepret events through his eyes pulls them from their chairs rather than unfolding chapter-by-chapter in front of them.

While films like Steven Spielberg's War Horse propose, though less gracefully, that through the eyes of animals humanity sees itself, few films have such a lasting impact. Nothing is given to us as the audience and we are forced to come to our own conclusions. Those conclusions sometimes suggest that this world uses us as its playthings. It is not an unique view; we all share those same feelings of sadness, isolation and helplessness, but through the eyes of this simple creature it all seems much more bearable. A sense of hope in a world where it is lacking.

Commentary: An hour long look into the legacy of Balthazar titled Un Metteur en Ordre: Robert Bresson combines discussions of Au Hasard Balthazar by such filmmaking legends like Jean-Luc Godard and Louis Malle. Every stitch that goes into the film is dissected by the panel. Subtitles for the film are also given an improved translation to ensure the words spoken are the ones intended by Bresson.

Visual: The blacks and whites of Au Hasard Balthazar are crisp and the definition of the digitally preserved celluloid looks fantastic. Grain is to a minimum.

Hard to watch to be certain, but one of history's greatest films. A must own for any cinephile.

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