The Donkey as Lamb Led to the Slaughter: "Au Hasard Balthazar"

He was oppressed, yet when he was afflicted he opened not his mouth;
as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.—Isa. 53:7

Continuing last week's exploration of seasonally-appropriate Lenten films, we turn our attention to Au Hasard Balthazar, a devastating work from of one of cinema's most spiritual auteurs: Robert Bresson.

An artist whose life-long focus on the link between suffering and redemption highlighted his deeply Catholic sensibilities (and led to his recognition as "the patron saint of cinema"), the legendary Frenchman's unusual, ascetic style has produced numerous imitators. His fascination with non-professional actors; his penchant for connecting distinctive sounds with key characters or oft-repeated events; his focus on incidental visual details and his minimal use of music; the naturalistic, almost careless way in which his shots are composed—all stylistic fingerprints that shaped countless directorial disciples, yet few (if any) have succeeded in combining them as powerfully as he.

Au Hasard Balthazar offers one of cinema's most powerful Christological metaphors, but the symbolism at its core is far from obvious. At times, the film's titular character is an easy cipher for Christ; at others, a representation of human frailty itself rather than Humanity's Lord. Adding to the interpretive complexity, the film's central character is not even a man; Balthazar is a donkey.

The film captures his entire sorrowful life—detailing his many masters, their easy vacillations between cruelty and indifference, and the often-parallel struggles of the donkey and his beloved mistress, Marie, against life's harsher realities. Both experience joy and happiness in their youth; both are driven from that safe haven into the arms of ruthless oppressors—for him, physical oppression; spiritual and emotional, for her—and both struggle to find meaning in the face of profound suffering.

Marie, unlike Balthazar, is not powerless. While he is compelled to go wherever his masters take him, she can defend herself against their advances. Yet she rejects the opportunity offered by her autonomy, throwing herself away on those undeserving of her beauty. The presence of little Balthazar is her one comfort and strength, the anchor to which she clings even as she becomes the unwitting catalyst for his death.

Like the lamb of Isaiah, little, long-suffering Balthazar does nothing to merit the cruelty he experiences. The silent patience with which the tiny donkey embraces all that befalls him is rendered more extraordinary because we recognize how undeserving he is of such suffering.

By contrast, a human being—even the tragic Marie—can never be seen as completely innocent. She, like all fallen humans, carries within herself the seeds of her own destruction, and while we grieve at her lost innocence, it is impossible to consider her a "spotless victim." Isaiah's wisdom in choosing the sacrificial lamb as a metaphor for Christ extends beyond the references to Judaic customs and culture; we instinctively grasp its innocence—an unblemished victim whose role as a fitting sacrifice cannot be matched by a member of our fallen human race.

Bresson takes great pains to avoid Balthazar's anthropomorphization, and as a result, his tormentors are more easily forgivable. He is an animal—their animal—and while one could hope for (or even demand) a bit more kindness, the brutality he experiences is both unsurprising and unexceptional. Without condoning the actions of his masters, the fundamental difference between an irrational beast (no matter how kind and how patient) and a rational human being insulates us from Balthazar's suffering.

But with Christ, there is no such escape. We are burdened by the fact that He does not "belong" to His oppressors; by the knowledge that He was as innocent and blameless as it is possible for a man to be; and by the fact that his very humanness caused him to suffer far more keenly than Balthazar ever could. With Christ, we face the added burden of knowing that the men who torment, oppress, and kill him are not cinematic constructs or faceless Roman mercenaries; they are us. You and me—we are the cause of his suffering. The men who infuriate us so when we witness their treatment of a poor, dumb donkey are almost infinitely better in comparison.

In this way, too, we are driven by the suffering of Balthazar and that of his Creator to do better. If we are so moved by his passion and death, how can we be so unmoved by His, who suffered more for our sakes than any animal (or any human) could ever imagine?

(This film, one of the many offered by the inestimable Criterion Collection, is available on Hulu Plus, which boasts an impressive streaming library of Criterion titles.)