Robert Bresson might be the greatest master filmmaker most people have never heard of. Seldom screened even at art houses, his 13 features have acquired a semi-legendary status among cinephiles.
Now here's Pittsburgh's first big-screen chance in years to see not just a Bresson, but what some critics consider his best: Au Hasard Balthazar, a 1966 masterpiece that testifies to the beauty and singularity of Bresson's vision. It's about a donkey.
Of course, it's not just about a donkey, nor is Balthazar just a donkey (though he is that, too, one of the paradoxes that makes Bresson fascinating).
The film follows Balthazar from his infancy in the French countryside through his acquisition by a family, his fated life of servitude and abuse -- as well as a little love -- from various humans, and his demise. His story is woven with that of humans including: his first owner, Marie, who dotes upon him as a girl, then loses him but as a young woman gets him back; Marie's father, a stubborn, honorable schoolteacher-turned-farmer; a drunken vagrant named Arnold; and Gérard, a cruel young man who loves Marie and violently resents her affection for the dumb beast.
Bresson's films are often called "austere," and superficially that's true of Balthazar: It's shot crisply in black-and-white, with actors who underplay almost as much as does the lead donkey, music limited to a beautiful Schubert piano sonata, and a story pared to a series of vivid, telling yet elliptical (and occasionally baffling) episodes.
On the other hand, Bresson (1907-99) was a religious man, and this film is at one level a kind of Jesus story about a donkey, complete with a mother/fallen woman named Marie, a mock crowning and concluding Passion play. And while Bresson's view of human (and animal) suffering is as unsentimental as a farmhand's, it's hardly detached: His thematic concerns are grace and predestination, responsibility and culpability, all with a mere donkey as mute, bridled, innocent witness.
Moreover, just below its skin, Balthazar is gorgeous cinema, a brilliantly shot and edited dance of images and sounds. Indelible: Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) walks barefoot in a nighttime patch of woods (Bresson showing just her feet), picking flowers for a garland for Balthazar. Bresson has a genius for seizing on the nightmarish images that flash through our lives -- a hand drawing grotesquely back from a window on which it's just tapped, for instance, or a donkey, its dull square teeth bared, rearing up under the whip. When, late in the film, the glare of a miser's lamp sweeps across a dark barn, almost incidentally noting Balthazar in the shadows, it's a chilling punctuation to Marie's acceptance of the greedy man's invitation to come inside. It also reveals a narrative filmmaker working at the highest levels of the art -- with light, with motion, beyond words. In French, with subtitles.