Saturday, March 30, 2013

Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson)

Two saints.

Considered by cinephiles as one of the greatest films of all time, "Au Hasard Balthazar" is Robert Bresson's lyrical meditation on spirituality, martyrdom and human cruelty, and after so many years, it still stands the test of time as one of the most truly reflective Christian films without overtly highlighting the fact that it is indeed one. Bresson, known for his minimalist approach to filmmaking, is never too easy to resort to cheap emotions and utter sentimentalism. Instead of examining the inhumanity of man through the eyes of the human characters, he has filtered everything through the primitive perspective of a work-burdened donkey named Balthazar, a symbolic manifestation of sainthood, and is also the silent absorber of all of the characters' worldly sins. The donkey, indeed with all his hardships and misfortunes as he gets passed on from one owner to another, is on the receiving end of a film that is really human nature itself, in all its ugly glory, in a nutshell. As what Jean-Luc Godard has once said about "Au Hasard Balthazar": "…this film is really the world in an hour and a half". Well, I do not know if he has just said that to impress Anne Wiazemsky (the film's lead, which Godard would marry a year later), but nonetheless, his comment on the film really is as truthful as you can get. 
The film, for all the critical accolades that it has received, should not be looked upon as a fine piece of narrative filmmaking. On the contrary, "Au Hasard Balthazar" is unusually clunky in its exposition, characterization and camera work. Sometimes, it even suffers from unwarranted scene jumps that are quite frustrating to sit through, especially when the film itself really calls for a more 'observant' approach to cinematography. While the characters, although it is given that majority of them are representative of man's cruelty to things and creations that they consider to be comparably inferior to them, are quite caricature-like. A specific example is the Gerard character (played by François Lafarge), a typical delinquent who seems to go through every waking moments of his life with a penchant to hurt those around him, including the girl Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), Balthazar's original owner, and the only person he seems to be interested in. 
Also, the whole 'legal' angle that Marie's farmer of a father was deeply involved in wasn't given enough emphasis, which, along the way, has resulted in some uncalled-for unevenness in the plot and some blurry character motivations. 
But in all fairness, all those shortcomings do not really distract from the uncannily spiritual experience that "Au Hasard Balthazar" has to offer. After all, the film is an emotional event and not a narrative one, and is more a visual reflection on the quiet beauty of Christian faith rather than being a story about it. For starters, I do think that I will remember this film not because of its story but because of its inspired, poetic and almost fable-like visual realization of faith and kindness within a subtle theological context. 
As a Christian, when I think of the words 'passion' and 'martyrdom', an image of a sweltering and exhausted donkey would have been the last thing to materialize in my mind. But after watching "Au Hasard Balthazar", as much as it is quite awkward to analogize a donkey's everyday plight to the soul-saving hardships that Jesus Christ himself has went through, I thought, well, why not? After all, the world, in all its evils, can indeed crucify a hapless soul in ways more than one, and who can better endure such an infliction by people 'who do not know what they're doing' than a pure, wordless donkey who neither does. As what the Blessed Mother Teresa has said, "God is the friend of silence". 
In my honest opinion, I do think that no other film in existence has tackled Christian faith in such a non-preaching light, and Bresson, for whatever deficiencies he seems to have had in the film in terms of storytelling, has created a cinematic piece of such innocent glow. Indeed, "Au Hasard Balthazar" is a film that has successfully tackled the essence of Christian faith without even looking like a religious film. And without an overtly Christian aspect to spice it up, the film has managed to overcome religious boundaries to tell a simplistic tale of purity and saintliness in a manner that is powerful yet very humbling. It may not turn you into a man of religion overnight, but it will certainly convince you to reflect on your way of life and on your beliefs, and to ask yourself the question of "Have I been good enough?" Such is the power of "Au Hasard Balthazar".

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