Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
Director: Robert Bresson
Your rarely see donkeys on screen. Horses seem to be in every second film, their presence prolific across film history. When they are not being extras in period dramas or winning races in biopics, they are developed or even central characters in many stories for children. Indeed, only dogs (and maybe monkeys) have had as great success on film. I wondered about this particular choice of animal for the central character in Bresson's film; it clearly points to the story's religious themes, donkeys featuring significantly in the Gospels. Donkeys also do not culturally possess the same nobility that horses do, being almost exclusively beasts of burden, adding greater pathos to this creature's plight.
While Bresson's devotion to realism and use of non-professional actors can be distracting (the donkey occasionally acts the humans off the screen), this is a very touching and at times depressing film of innocence abused. Balthazar's fate is linked to that of Marie, a young woman who once owned him, and is one of the few to show him kindness. Both Marie and Balthazar are abused by the same people, in particular a young man called Gerard. The cruelty is extra nasty because it is done simply to be cruel; Gerard ties a lit paper to Balthazar's tale for fun, and sexually humiliates Marie because he wants to.
The film is a strange proposition to sit down and watch, but it is beautiful and sad; and if the ending doesn't at least make you sigh with sadness then you probably don't like animals.