Is Balthazar a Donkey?
Au Hasard Balthazar 1966 – 3rd viewing
I did it with Cries and Whispers (1972) and The Silence (1963). I watched them three times each in the same week. I felt that there was still something I wasn’t seeing even though I was pretty sure I was on the right track after the second viewing. But I didn’t feel comfortable with having really understood what Ingmar Bergman was getting at or trying to say. So I watched them both yet again.
Today, I spent about five hours analysing and writing about Au Hasard Balthazar, breaking the film down even further. This time I was looking at the imagery and symbolism that tied in with Christian beliefs. When I had searched to find what I could about who Balthazar was historically I discovered that he was related to both the Old Testament and the New Testament. What I read, right or wrong, correct or incorrect, was that sometime after the first surviving documents of the New Testament books were found, the name Balthazar was attributed to one of the three Magi who visited the baby Jesus. The Magi have variously been described as wise men or kings who travelled to worship the baby, Jesus, bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Collins dictionary described Magi as either, “members of a priestly caste of ancient Media and Persia” or “the wise men: Matt. 2:1-13”. The Cambridge Dictionary (dictionary. cambridge.org) defines them: “in the bible, the three men, thought to be kings or astrologers, who followed a star to visit Jesus Christ when he was a baby and give him presents. They are also called the Three Kings or the Three Wise Men.”
I also read that the name Balthasar, Baltasar and Belshazzar are related (on the Encyclopedia Britannica site britannica.com). It defines him as King of Babylon. The article however states that in fact he was coregent with his father Nabonidus, who was king from 555-539 BC, but in exile from 550 onwards. Belshazzar took over and was then coregent from 550 BC, until the Persian king Cyrus II took the city of Babylon in 539 BC.
Interestingly Belshazzar was definitely the son of a King, definitely a crown prince, even if not actually crowned a king and Jesus was known in various Christian literature as the prince of peace as well as the king of kings.
Sometimes an author gives a character a name that means something in particular, and sometimes it is completely irrelevant. My experience of studying poetry and literature in my university days, is an author doesn’t always expect to be taken literally and the name can mean something specific if the character is a symbol of something other than what it appears to be on the surface.
I don’t know anything about the writer-director Robert Bresson’s background or upbringing. But there are two possibilities for the name:
- He didn’t intend the name to have significance
- He did intend the name to have significance
From that there are three possibilities:
- He liked the name. It was of significance to him. It was the name of his father or a relative or of his favourite historical figure. Or he just liked the sound of the name
- He was trying to indicate something to whoever his audience would be, if any. Authors often create works for people who have the same general historical knowledge they have. If he intended the story to be understood on another level, other than the obvious story about a dumb animal who passes through several owners and is mistreated or abused by all but one.
- He was trying to mislead people, because he wanted to obfuscate his intention
“Okay, so the donkey is actually a king. And yet he doesn’t do anything. Things happen to him, but he doesn’t initiate things. He’s the protagonist, but he’s not actively progressing the events in the story. What people do to him activate the next part of the story. He’s at the mercy of the people around him. Also, he never gets to be a king and rule. He doesn’t rule over anything. To turn it around: in fact, he rules over nothing. And yet he sees everything.” – Philip Powers, 12 September 2017
I suddenly realised a broader understanding: that Balthazar is not just a donkey, a king, a representation of Jesus Christ, or an observer of what is going on around him. At any given point he could be all of those things, or just one of those things.
When Balthazar is taken in by a circus owner, and he looks at the animals, who is the donkey as he looks at the polar bear, the chimpanzee, the tiger and the elephant? And equally importantly, as Robert Bresson’s camera shows those animals’ point-of-view, who do they see looking at them. Do they see a donkey? A mere animal? Just as they are? Or, a being, above them in creation? Do they see a king?
I wonder if there’s anything anyone else has written that has asked or answered these same questions.
I like to read film articles by the New York Times, The Guardian, Variety, Time, Newsweek and The New Yorker. So I did a bit of a search.
I saw an Anthony Lane reference in the New Yorker and one from the Chicago Reader, but they were one-dimensional and didn’t add anything to what I’m thinking about. They didn’t provide insight, they just confirmed the greatness of the film.
At 3am Wednesday morning it was time to watch Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) a third time.