Au Hasard Balthazar

A simple overture plays over black and white pages of credits. Suddenly, the music is interrupted by the braying of a donkey, oddly beautiful. The first shot we see is the closeup of a donkey's flank, its baby nursing beneath it. French writer/director Robert Bresson ("Diary of a Country Priest") charts the sainthood of this beast of burden, suffering for the sins of all he encounters, in "Au Hasard Balthazar."

Laura's Review: A

Rialto Pictures resurrects Bresson's masterpiece, unavailable for thirty years, in a new print with new translations and subtitles. Bresson and his editor Raymond Lamy ("Pickpocket") skirt around more traditional storytelling techniques, dropping the viewer into and out of the lives, sometimes overlapping, of whoever currently owns Balthazar, for a cumulative impression of sin and spirituality. "Au Hasard Balthazar" becomes richer with repeated viewings. Children walking through a field with their father beg him for the baby donkey they discover, lead him home and baptize him Balthazar, giving him the 'salt of wisdom.' Young Jacques and Marie, the daughter of the schoolteacher on his father's land, enjoy a childhood romance that is cut short when Jacques' sister dies and his father returns to the city. Years later, Balthazar has moved from pet to laborer, drawing a cart. When it overturns, he runs from his angry owner, returning to his childhood home which we now see is run down and for sale. The adult Marie (Anne Wiazemsky, "La Chinoise") is pleased to see her old friend, but the relationship between her father (Philippe Asselin) and his old employer turns into a local scandal when monies are unaccounted for. The adult Jacques (Walter Green) arrives to renew his love for Marie and arbitrate the situation, but he is thrown out by Marie's proud father and simply shrugs when Marie asks if she will see him again. From this point on, Marie drifts into a destructive relationship with local tough Gerard (François Lafarge). Marie runs away from her family, eventually degraded to the depths of prostitution. Marie's old pet is worked harshly by the local baker (François Sullerot), whose wife (Marie-Claire Fremont) enables their employee Gerard's criminal behavior. Gerard is as cruel to Balthazar as he is to Marie, even setting the animal's tail on fire in order to make him move. Gerard is connected by an unsolved murder with a drunken bum, Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert, "Mouchette"), who saves Balthazar from being put down by the baker, only to beat the animal in drunken rages. Balthazar literally runs away and joins a circus, where a trainer declares him exceptionally intelligent, but the donkey's success is cut short when Arnold attends a show and reclaims him (in a prime example of Bresson's story progression, we only see Arnold recognize Balthazar and approach the ring, a bottle upraised threateningly - the next scene shows the man once again leading the animal along the road - we're left to fill in the connective narrative). After all these characters intersect again over an inheritance, Balthazar ends up in the hands of a mean merchant (Pierre Klossowski), who mistreats the animal worst of all. Marie reaches her lowest point at his hands as well, offering her body for some food and shelter. The merchant gives the donkey to her parents when they come to retrieve her, but Marie runs away again and her father dies of heartbreak ('he's proud of his suffering' claims Marie rather heartlessly), leaving her mother alone with Balthazar. The louse Gerard interrupts Marie's mother grave side, asking to borrow Balthazar, but she refuses, calling him a saint who has worked enough during his life. Gerard steals the donkey that night, using him to smuggle stolen goods, but customs officials begin firing - the boys scatter and Balthazar takes shelter in some shrubs. Bresson cuts to daybreak, reveals that Balthazar has been hit and shows him finding the place where we first saw him, in a field surrounded by sheep. The donkey dies as a lamb suckles its mother. Just the act of writing this synopsis has brought back tears, so moving is Balthazar's spiritual transcendence. The Catholic filmmaker makes the death of a donkey the joyful release of an untainted soul burdened with humankind's sins. The most modern equivalent of this final scene may be the ending of Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves." Bresson uses nonprofessional 'actors' and his cinematographer, Ghislain Cloquet ("I Sent a Letter to My Love," "Le Boucher"), often focuses their extremities. For example, we see Balthazar's hooves trotting along, or the twitching of his ears, almost as often as we see his face. (In fact, when Marie puts her clothes back on at the merchant's, we see the shadow of Balthazar's tail twitching on the wall.) People's hands are frequently shown performing everyday tasks - driving, emptying money into a till. Sound is natural, sometimes accompanied by a Schubert sonata on piano. Only once is this cinema verite style given magical qualities in the brilliantly edited sequence where Balthazar meets the circus animals - a tiger, a polar bear, a monkey and an elephant. Closeups of the animals' eyes, always cutting back to Balthazar's, suggest a communion. Just how does Bresson show such beauty and spirituality in a simple donkey? This is one of the profound mysteries of "Au Hasard Balthazar."

Robin's Review: B

Director Kirsten Sheridan, with a screenplay by Nick Castle and James V. Hart (adapting the original story by Castle and Paul Castro), tells a sentimental, not syrupy, trio of stories, that intertwine, of a tiny family separated before they even has a chance to start. Lyla is a gifted but sheltered musician who, at just 20, is destined to become a cellist of renown. Louis is a charming Irish singer-songwriter playing, with his band, in Manhattan. Their paths cross when both are invited to a party and they meet on the rooftop when each wants some privacy from the crowd. As they sit, overlooking Washington Square they are serenaded by a street musician’s haunting rendition of Moondance. The magic of the music draws them together and they spend the night in a flush of romance and love. The next morning, they vow to each other to meet but Lyla’s controlling father spirits her away to her next concert before this can happen. Louis, seeing her leave, believes that she just does not care about him. Their night of love has an unexpected by-product when Lyla learns that she is pregnant. Her father, Thomas (William Sadler), keeps her under his thumb and, when she is in a car accident, he tells her that the unborn baby had died. Despondent, Lyla gives up her music and her career. At the same time, Louis, grieving the loss of his true love, abandons his singing and songwriting. Neither knows that their love child is being raised in an orphanage in upstate New York. The boy, Evan, has a natural affinity to music and is able to build a concert in his head from the wind blowing through the tall grass and the hum of insects. Music is such a part of his life that Evan knows, in his heart, that his parents are alive and, if he brings the music to them, he will reunite his long estranged family. His quest, after running away from the orphanage, brings him to New York City where he meets a young black street musician, Arthur (Leon G. Thomas III). Arthur grudgingly befriends the boy and takes him to the derelict Fillmore East Theater where he lives with dozens of other homeless kids, most of whom are also musically inclined. Wizard (Robin Williams), a Fagin-like character who acts as surrogate father and manager to the kids, leads this Dickensonian clan of street performers. He allows Evan to stay and is awakened when the boy borrows his guitar, the first he has ever held, and creates a masterful, energetic tune. Wizard knows he has someone very special on his hands and nurtures the boy’s natural music talent, profiting from Evan’s ability to draw a crowd – and great tips. An unexpected opportunity falls upon Evan, now named August Rush by Wizard, when his music is deemed good enough to get him into the Julliard School of Music. He astonishes the school’s dons with his magnificent ability and his first composition, August’s Rhapsody. He is invited to conduct his premier opus at a concert in Central Park. He knows that this is the spark that will fulfill his quest. He does not know that the wheels of his long hoped-for family reunion have already been put in motion, separately, by Lyla and Louis. While this story of extraordinary people pulled apart by circumstance and brought back together by faith is a nice one, there are two reasons to see “August Rush” – the incredible original score and music and Freddie Highmore. Highmore is a charismatic presence as Evan/August and the young actor imbues the character with a true wonder and understanding about his music. From the beginning, when you first meet Evan, he is convincing as a lad who sees the world and its sounds as instruments for his composition. When he first takes up Wizard’s guitar, the youngster is convincing as the beatific prodigy. Then, there is the original music by Mark Mancini. At the beginning of the film, we see Lyla perform a classical cello solo. At the same time, Louis is making his own music with his band at a gig. Mancini shows the contrasts between the two musical styles but soon begins to meld them together into an organic one. There are also August’s original compositions and their energetic execution that are underlined with an impressive percussive beat. The great rock classic, Moon dance, is used to fine affect as that tune in integrated into the music of August Rush. Keri Russell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers give solid, if less dimensional when compared with Highmore, performances that make you want them, and their son, rejoined. The rest of the supporting cast, led by the versatile Terence Howard as a sympathetic child services agent, fill out the background characters nicely. Techs are top notch across the board with John Mathieson’s expert lensing blending well with the music. Production design and locations – from Carnegie Hall to Central Park’s Great Lawn to the battered Fillmore East Theater and more of New York City – add to the film’s depth of place. If you appreciate a well-crafted fantasy tale that is a showcase for its young star and its great music, then you might just like “August Rush.” I know I do.