This is the biography of a beleaguered donkey named Balthazar, which at many times seems an autobiography, since the film-maker projects so poignantly the animal's viewpoint. We also witness the coming of age of Marie, the daughter of a teacher, running parallel to the bumpy ride which is the donkey's karma. The line which divides man from beast after all is not so sharp. The girl's sufferings do not seem to be all that different, since she too is helplessly swept downstream by the overpowering current of events, repeatedly abused and rejected.
It is also a movie about the ugly side of human nature, man's capacity for violence, on a scale animal's are incapable of, and for which his very intelligence becomes a potent instrument. This aspect our our nature is visible when we see by turns the drunkard Arnold, the villain Gerard and a mill owner belaboring the donkey. The encounter with animals brings out the worst part us, more particularly when no body is watching. It is the same streak which is manifest in our relationship to each other and to the environment, which religions of the past have in vain tried to civilize. What sight can be more revolting than of a person uncontrollably thrashing a donkey or tying a burning newspaper to his tail, which, in another situation, all too easily becomes another human being--a slave, an employee, a woman, a foreigner or the "enemy"?
One of the most interesting sequences is where Balthazar is taken to a zoo and encounters a tiger, a monkey and a pair of polar bears, all in cages. It is as though they all communicate through the bond of shared suffering, or at least recognition and acceptance, which demolishes momentarily the divide of species. The monkeys squeal is an expression of primeval life force. The tiger seems benign and contemplative.
The closing sequence when Balthazar dies due to a stray bullet is one of transcendent beauty. He is surrounded by a flock of sheep as he kneels before collapsing, almost like adoring magi, silent in tears and compassion, in a gentle requiem. It is as if he encounters his kindred at last. It is a sublime moment in cinema, biblical in tone, beautifully framed by the Schubert melody( linked below).
Bresson is sometimes described as a spiritual film maker. Be that as it may, he is a humane and compassionate one, empathic with suffering.