Au hasard Balthazar (Bresson, 1966)
Faith has been made complicated in the 21st Century. It is economic. It is sociological. It is classist. Above all, it is politicized. Christ’s message has been manipulated and warped so that people can justify hate with His words. Mention of the Republican party or the Right will undoubtedly conjure images of frenzied worshipers, people shouting in tongues, and probably Rick Santorum. How many votes in this election will be made with a spiritual basis? Belief has been exorcised from political discourse. It’s like your “personal life,” something you leave behind when going to work. For many, Christianity has been made a joke – a punchline that everyone knows will never land.
It’s mental segregation. A religious conviction has been made into shorthand for particular socioeconomic ideas. And wrongly so. Educated liberals offer factual objections to the most basic assumptions in the Holy Bible. In fact, the simple virtue of education has been politicized as well. Believing in a God is now associated with being stupid or uneducated.
All of this is equally upsetting. It makes Au hasard Balthazar so vital.
The Christ imagery is not hard to see. Balthazar is about the eponymous donkey and his struggles. It is a touching arrangement of image after image, sound and story. Bresson was a French Catholic and, like those of us with a strong faith, couldn’t leave his convictions at home. In art, this fact somehow becomes a virtue again.
Bresson’s tale is full of impeccable photography and a tremendous script. The pictures are so astoundingly crisp and focused that Bresson teaches us where to look with less labor than Hollywood is every able. It’s so subtle, but we have been trained to lie with depth, especially now as we are dancing with three dimensions. He famously said that the only way to photograph was from close and in front. At times, this consistency is redundant, not beautiful, but only when employed in rapidly edited passages. Most of the time, however, his photography is sublime – perhaps more evocative of the Italian school than other contemporary French work. In addition, there is a magnificent script, spending a gorgeous majority in silence, respecting the potential of the image. It owes equally to the formality of mass and the subdued ecstasy in Dostoyevsky.
So many remark on Bresson’s radiant visual style, but he also makes thoughtful use of sound. Some noises, like a cricket or a creaky wheel will gradually migrate from peripheral to dominating. He constructs these tableaux in layers, but unimposing ones. They are simple, but never insulting. His discipline informs the counterpoint rather than eliminating it.
A difficult film, but entirely rewarding. Don’t ignore the religious imagery and symbolism. Instead, appreciate the intimacy between Bresson and his material.