One of the most beloved works of director Robert Bresson, "Au Hasard Balthazar" is a fascinating, minimalist work that is moving and powerful - especially surprising, given that the focus of the film is a donkey. Bresson's film has the donkey being passed from owner to owner, unable to offer any sort of protest. Throughout the film, he experiences love and cruelty, and shows the kind of range of emotions and feeling that humans can present not only to the world around them, but each other.
Early in the picture, young Marie (played as an adult by Anne Wiazemsky, "La Chinoise") is one of a group that finds a donkey in the fields. She pleads to her father to keep the animal, which he eventually agrees to. However, it's not long before Marie grows up and the animal that she once had so much love for doesn't get nearly as much of her attention anymore.
Eventually, Marie moves away (leaving behind childhood friend, Jacques, played very well by Walter Green) and her father sells the donkey to a baker, who is abusive to him. Over the years, he's lost, traded and bought by a series of different owners, including a circus worker, a drunk and a merchant, all of whom mistreat the poor creature. Yet, through all of this, the donkey remains a passive observer, soaking up terrible examples of humanity and proceeding forward with pride and dignity. The donkey occasionally crosses paths with Marie again at times, but sadly, her life proceeds along a similar path as the donkey's, as she suffers from mistreatment from others.
The performances by human actors Wiazemsky, Green and others are excellent, but the most remarkable performance is from the donkey, who is surprisingly expressive and owns a pair of incredibly soulful eyes. Technically, this is also a rich picture with rich cinematography/perfect compositions and a script that cuts out everything but the essentials. Although not widely-known, "Balthazar" certainly deserves a bigger audience and classic status.
VIDEO: Criterion presents "Au Hasard Balthazar" in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen. The presentation is, quite simply, astonishing to the eye. The Black & White film has obviously been given the royal treatment by Criterion, as the image looked nearly flawless. Sharpness and detail were not exceptional, but the picture maintained a crisp, rich, film-like clarity that was incredibly pleasing.
The presentation did show some minor instances of wear and dirt, but they were incredibly slight, especially considering the age of the film. Criterion has used the MTI restoration system again here in order to remove thousands of instances of dirt, debris and scratches. No edge enhancement, pixelation or other faults were spotted. While not quite without fault, this is about as beautiful a B & W presentation from this era as you're going to find.
SOUND: The mono soundtrack isn't as exceptional as the image quality, but given the video quality on Criterion's disc, that's a tough act to follow. Audio quality throughout the movie was fine, with clear dialogue.
EXTRAS: Extras include the hour-long French program "Un Metteur en ordre: Robert Bresson", which offers interviews with Bresson and others regarding the film, as well as a newly recorded short piece with film scholar Donald Richie. Additionally, there's a trailer for the film, as well as liner notes in the included booklet.
Final Thoughts: "Au Hasard Balthazar" is a simple, yet powerful and poetic tale of one animal that witnesses the worst of some of the people who own him during his years, yet still goes along in a noble fashion. Criterion's DVD edition offers outstanding video quality, fantastic audio and a couple of fine supplements. Recommended.
The Film A