Those journalists and foreign policy geeks Paul Keating recently called “donkeys”, might think better of the former PM after watching EO. In making this film, veteran director, Jerzy Skolimowski, has produced a strident defence of the donkey. “Some people say they are stupid, which is not right,” he says in the press release, “because they are very sensitive, very intelligent animals, and also extremely humble.”
The film, which runs for a humble 87 minutes, is the story of a shaggy grey donkey named EO, who experiences the extremes of human behaviour with a stoic forebearance few humans could match. Much of the movie is seen from EO’s perspective, as Skolimowski takes us inside the donkey’s mind and lets us see the world through his eyes.
It’s a strange, rather beautiful experience, in which we study the follies of human beings played out as an irrational pantomime. Why do they do these strange, dumb things? Why are they so excited or angry? It’s as if we are being allowed to escape the prison of our species and view humanity with an ideal detachment.
EO watches with bemusement as three village aldermen sing their own praises, then cut a ribbon to open a big, empty shed. A band plays in the background and glasses of beer are ritualistically brandished. In another scene the donkey finds himself a spectator at a local football match in which emotions and rivalries run high. Having been adopted as a mascot by the winning side, he becomes an object of hatred to the losers.
There are scenes, saturated in red, in which we seem to be dreaming or hallucinating with EO, notably a surreal interlude in which a robot dog clambers awkwardly across a rough piece of ground. The idea, presumably, is that EO is being treated as if he were a machine rather than a creature of flesh and blood, with his own deep emotions.
Throughout the film, EO dreams of returning to the place where we first meet him – a travelling carnival, in which he performs with a girl called Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska) who showers him with affection, kissing and stroking him like a lover. His attachment to Kasandra is deeply felt but goes unnoticed by those who think they are doing him and the other animals a favour by rescuing them from the carnival.
It’s a sad pattern in this story that even those who befriend EO and want to help him, do things that promote his unhappiness or put him in the way of harm. Skolimowski implies it’s the fate of animals to be misunderstood, to be brutalised by some and patronised by others. Those who see themselves as animal lovers can be faithless companions who burden the poor beast with their own anxieties.
If this story conjures a sense of déjà vu, you may have memories of Robert Bresson’s 1966 classic, Au Hasard, Balthazar, which paints a similarly intimate portrait of the life of a donkey. Skolimowski says it was the last film that prompted him to shed a tear, and EO is his late career homage to Bresson. Like Balthazar, Skolimowski’s donkey is loved and despised, used and abused by his human companions, but he traverses a much broader field. Bresson’s donkey lived his life among latter-day peasants in a provincial town in the Pyrenees, but EO undertakes a picaresque journey across Poland and Italy, being ferried on trucks; wandering through wilderness and farms, deserted steets and porticos. He meets workers and peasants but also a priest and a countess.
A solitary animal, EO occasionally finds himself swept up in a crowd of humans or beasts. He explores dense forests and barren industrial landscapes. It’s a quest in which the hero searches for his lost love, in this case, Kasandra, who sweeps back into his life for a single brief visit, igniting painful longings and testing his suprahuman patience.
The camera spends a long time gazing into EO’s eyes, making us see him as soulful and sensitive – not human, but more noble than the humans he encounters. When the story drifts off to follow another character, notably a truck driver named Mateo (Mateusz Kosciukiewicz) or a disgraced young priest, Vito (Lorenzo Zurzulo), it’s as if we’ve stepped into a different movie. Each detour leads back to EO, only to veer off on another tangent. Towards the end of the film Isabelle Huppert appears but has no scenes with the donkey.
On reflection, it seems that Skolimowski has made a movie about the twists and turns of fate which just happens to have a donkey as the lead character. After spending so long returning EO’s liquid gaze, we feel as if we know him well, but the lead role is shared by six different donkeys.
EO will break into loud braying from time to time, but he is largely silent. The people talking to him are apparently talking to themselves, using EO as a passive audience for their own thoughts and problems. The result is a film that speaks more eloquently through the camera than the script, in a convincing demonstration of the power of the cinema to tell a story through mostly visual means. If we are puzzled from time to time, EO is even more confused. In realising how strange a football match must seem from an animal’s viewpoint we begin to understand how little we know about the inner life of another creature. We may leave the movie knowing nothing more about donkeys, but with the feeling we’ve discovered something valuable about ourselves.
Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski
Written by Ewa Piaskowska, Jerzy Skolimowski
Starring: Tako, Hola, Marietta, Ettore, Rocco, Mela, Sandra Drzymalska, Mateusz Kosciukiewicz, Lorenzo Zurzolo, Isabelle Huppert, Michal Przybyslawaski, Tomasz Organek
Poland/Italy, ??, 87 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 25 March, 2023