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01/06/2010

Movie review: Au hasard Balthazar (it’s about a French donkey, you’re gonna love it!)  »

It may sound strange, but despite being a vegan, I’ve never been much of an animal person. Other than perhaps an ex-girlfriend’s cats, I’ve never felt much of a connection to any particular animal. This is probably because we never had pets growing up; my father would always count myself and my four brothers and sisters and then contend that we already had enough pets.

As a result, I fit in with the most recent wave of herbivores, those in the past decade who didn’t find their way to a veggie diet due to animal rights concerns necessarily, but rather more from a health and environmental perspective. Along with my vegan brother yammering on about the ridiculously terrible effects of animal products on the human body, the U.N. report on global warming from November 2006 probably had a bigger impact on my decision to take the vegan plunge than any notion of animal compassion. This is not to say that I went around punching puppies; I’m just saying I hadn’t thought a whole lot about animal rights.

With this background I watched Au hasard Balthazar by famed French New Wave director Robert Bresson. Known in movie nerd circles as “the existential donkey movie,” it’s the story of a French donkey named Balthazar. Yup, that’s right, the film stars an actual, non-anthropomorphized donkey. Whom I grew to love. During the movie, all manner of humans wander in and out of Balthazar’s life, and they all share one overriding characteristic: they suck. Hard. I’m oversimplifying a bit, but no human in the film has a serious character flawed (or at least what was considered flawed in the ’60s), be it thievery, alcoholism, prostitution, emotionless capitalism, or the rampant use of religion as a means to exploitative personal gain. And they all treat the quiet Balthazar, he of lovable eyes and calm demeanor, like shit. The movie ends with a striking, saintly and tear-inducing finale for our donkey protagonist.*

While it’s hard not to consider Balthazar a representation of Jesus, as no doubt did the devoutly Catholic Bresson, I was more interested in the movie’s message about the relationship between animals and humans than religion. Au hasard Balthazar reminded me a lot of Pythagoras’ quote about the importance of all living creatures to the quest for peace. “As long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seeds of murder and pain cannot reap the joy of love.” Despite my initial disinterest in animals, this thought always resonated with me. How can we as a society expect to develop compassion for the entire human race when we exploit, abuse and snuff out some of the most defenseless lives among us just to eat dinner? Suffering is suffering. It may not have been a cause of my becoming vegan, but the desire to cause the least amount of suffering that I can in this world ensures that I’m gonna take veganism to the grave.

I really enjoyed the film’s refusal to beat you over the head with any particular message. I quickly tire of films, particularly those with an activist message, that manipulate my emotions, even if I agree with that message. I’ve read that Bresson would do like 50 takes of each scene, until the actors delivered the lines completely emotionlessly. To be sure, this is a slow and ponderous film, and probably not for everyone. Regardless, Au hasard Balthazar challenged me to consider the delicate balance between humans and all other living creatures. No, it doesn’t deliver the same punch in the gut as a PETA slaughterhouse movie, thus it’s probably not going to capture the hearts and minds of omnivores. That said, I found myself, someone who previously paid little attention to the animal side of veganism, accepting moral advice from a lowly donkey, and it’s hard not to respect the life of something you consider a moral beacon.

Yes, I know the issue of the actual donkey’s treatment in the name of making this movie is somewhat controversial, but I’d like to reserve the discussion of the treatment of animals in art for a later film review. Entering that discussion here would miss the point that Au hasard Balthazar is simply one of the most compassionate movies about the life of an animal that I have ever seen. I’ve never wanted to hug a donkey so much in my entire life.

*As much as I want to discuss the ending in more detail, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. I also don’t want my tears to short out my laptop. Shut up! He’s a damn cute donkey! Here, see? Cute donkey.

Zach Cincotta is a vegan movie obsessive who, along with his vegan brother, discusses his thoughts on every movie he watches at Le Souvenir d’un avenir. When he’s not slowly burning out his projector bulb, Zach is an entertainment and business attorney representing awesome bands, record labels, and other small businesses. His first movie review for Vegansaurus can be found here, you can contact him here, and follow him on Twitter here. Phew.

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