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MOVIE REVIEW

An engrossing view of sin, sainthood

Au Hasard Balthazar

Written and directed by: Robert Bresson

Starring: Anne Wiazemsky, Francois Lafarge, Jean-Claude Guilbert

At: Kendall Square, through April 15 Running time: 95 minutes

Unrated (adult situations)

In French, with subtitles

For my money, the most Christ-like figure now appearing on movie screens isn't in "The Passion of Movie Review the Christ" or "The Gospel of John." He isn't even human.

He's a donkey named Balthazar, and he suffers mightily for the sins of man in an out-ofthe- way French village in Robert Bresson's 1966 classic "Au Hasard Balthazar. " A new print opens for revival run today at the Kendall Square; a pilgrimage to absorb this quietly devastating, nearly perfect allegory is very much recommended.

Bresson was a Jansenist, a strain of Catholicism that stresses divine grace and man's distance from God. His films -- lean, minimalist fables all -- occasionally allow for sudden bolts of transcendence, but in "Balthazar" we have all fallen and we can't get up. The donkey is merely present as witness, servant, and martyr: Our Beast of Metaphysical Burden.

Balthazar is bought as a foal by rich man vacationing in the village, and as his young son Jacques plays with the donkey and with Marie, the local schoolteacher's daughter, we are given a brief, problematic glimpse of Eden.

Jacques then returns to the city, and Marie grows up into a tremulous teenage innocent Anne Wiazemsky, the closest the movies have ever come to Vermeer) drawn helplessly to local bad boy Gerard (Francois Lafarge).

Gerard's not much of a rebel by Hollywood standards -- he's the leader of a moped gang, for one thing -- but his sadistic streak is considerable and deeply felt.

Marie is soon addicted to him, and her face carries the full weight of the spiritual loss.

Everyone in the village specializes in one sin or another. Marie's father (Philippe Asselin) has a stubborn pride that costs him his land; the baker's wife (M. C. Fremont) lusts after delivery boy Gerard; homeless wastrel Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert) includes murder, drunkenness, and greed among his flaws.

Balthazar serves them all, is abused by most, judges no one.

There's a sequence in which Gerard, annoyed by the donkey's balkiness, sets fire to his tail and watches the animal canter up the road in panic; in the next shot he finds Balthazar standing stolidly among the bushes and hitches him back up to the cart. The violence is absorbed, the sense of forgiveness palpable, but Gerard sees only a dumb beast. Bresson invites us to consider which of these two is the more unfortunate.

Marie's mother is the only person in the film who recognizes Balthazar for a saint; perhaps Marie does as well, but she's too far gone to admit it. Redemption isn't on the menu in "Au Hasard Balthazar" -- see the director's "Pickpocket" for that -- but the film is meditatively engrossing nonetheless, and it occasionally flashes a spry sense of humor, as in the scenes in which Balthazar is briefly taken in by a circus. He threatens to become a star -- not his lot in life -- and so doesn't stay long.

"Balthazar" also has one of the most astonishing final sequences in all of cinema, one in which a handful of prosaic elements snap together to create an image to make grown men weep. I won't spoil it, other than to say that it covers some of the same symbolic ground as Mel Gibson's "Passion" but with twice the depth and none of the gore. To see "Au Hasard Balthazar" is to understand the limits of religious literalism in movies -- the limits, even, of movies themselves. Bresson pares everything away until all that's left are the things we do and the hole left by the things we could have done but didn't.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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