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French film's Balthazar is a donkey for all seasons

Anne Wiazembsky as Marie in the 1966 French film "Au Hasard Balthazar."
Anne Wiazembsky as Marie in the 1966 French film "Au Hasard Balthazar."
Argos Films

As strange as it seems, in 1969 when I was a South Andes missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, elders and sisters were allowed to go to movies.

And I saw some doozies.

Some (like “Shoes of the Fisherman”) elevated my spirit. Some (“The Fool Killer”) scared the devil out of me. And several French efforts left me scratching my head and contemplating my navel.

One of those French films was “Balthazar” by Robert Bresson, a film about a donkey. I never did make heads or tails of the thing. In three words, I found it “gray,” “dim” and “plodding” — kind of like the donkey in the picture.

I bring this up because the other night, as I leafed through lists of great spiritual films, “Balthazar” kept rearing his shaggy head. One critic named it the second best faith film ever made. AMC’s “Top 100 Spiritually Significant Films” (online at praised “Balthazar” while snubbing Cecil B. DeMille’s “Ten Commandments.”

For the second time in 50 years, I found myself scratching my head.

So, with a little hustle, I chased down a copy of the film and gave it another look.

The full title of the picture is “Au Hasard Balthazar.” And here, in whirlwind fashion, is a brief synopsis:

A young girl named Marie visits a farm and falls in love with a baby donkey. She takes it home, baptizes it and — in fine Catholic tradition — gives it a taste of salt so it will know life can be bitter. She names it Balthazar after one of the wise men.

And, indeed, life is bitter for both the donkey and Marie. In fact, their lives run parallel. They are walked on, neglected, given tidbits of affection from time to time and eventually — mercifully — are called home. Other characters come and go. There’s a stubborn father, a hesitant mother, a benevolent town drunk and a twisted kid on a scooter who sings like an angel in church, then kicks the stuffing out of Balthazar for no reason.

As for the spirituality, I think it shows up in the way filmmaker Bresson gives the suffering of innocent victims an ennobling quality. There is a spark of the divine in them. They deserve our love.

But also, surprisingly, Bresson seems to see that same spark of divinity in the flawed and flaying human beings who cause the suffering. They may be our enemies, but they still deserve love. And they are worthy of it not because we’ve made ourselves morally and spiritually superior. And not because they’ve done anything positive. No, they deserve love because they, too, carry that spark of divinity within them. God is in their makeup.

And because God triggers our love, so should the mean and selfish souls among us. Like Balthazar, just by existing they merit our affection.

In the final scene, Balthazar is accidentally shot by the motorbike tough I mentioned earlier. Afraid and confused, the donkey wanders into a meadow. As his eyes fade and his limbs weaken, we see a shepherd leading a flock of sheep into the meadow to graze. The sheep surround Balthazar like angels unawares. Balthazar lies down and breathes his last, returning — we assume — to the loving God who gave him breath.

This time, at the end of the picture, instead of scratching my head as I did 50 years ago, I dabbed my eyes.

“Balthazar,” to my mind, deserves a place in our hearts, and on all those lists of spiritual films.