Year:  2022

Director:  Jerzy Skolimowski

Rated:  MA

Release:  April 6, 2023

Distributor: Hi Gloss

Running time: 87 minutes

Worth: $17.00
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Hola, Tako, Marietta, Ettore, Rocco, Mela, Sandra Drzymalska, Lorenzo Zurzolo, Isabelle Huppert

… incongruous mixture of social realism and impressionist vignettes… an ode to nature that is often hauntingly beautiful and diaphanous, leading us to contemplate how easily we disconnect from beings who, if not ensouled, are alive and worthy of kindness and dignity.

It is near impossible to describe Jerzy Skolimowski’s rich, strange, and devastating animal rights tone poem EO. An elder statesman of arthouse and Polish cinema, Skolimowski tells a deceptively simple tale; the travails and travels of a circus donkey, EO across Poland and Italy, but the result of the animal’s experiences is a meditation on nature and humanity that encompasses all the majesty and malignancy of human folly.

There will be comparisons to Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), which is the template for animal centric fables that dwell on the fecklessness of humans and their casual treatment of animals. In Bresson’s film, Balthazar’s birth to death narrative forms a comparison piece to the often self-inflicted dramas of the people who surround him. Balthazar is simply a donkey, and his mistreatment is an extension of Bresson’s parable of human frailty. Skolimowski and co-writer Ewa Piaskowska are less interested in the people that EO encounters (some kind, most not) than they are in EO’s connection with the natural world.

The audience first sees EO in Cyrk Orion with his trainer The Amazing Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska). Kasandra, real name Magda, loves EO and thinks of him as more than an animal there to perform tricks in her show. When the circus is dismantled because of bankruptcy, EO sets out on a peculiar and sometimes inexplicable journey that sees him interact with other animals (silently watching their pain and majesty) and random humans who include Vitto, a young priest who has become a gambler (Lorenzo Zurzolo) and his imperious stepmother, The Countess (Isabelle Huppert). From one sojourn to another, EO is thrust into the world where nature is being held in a stranglehold by man. There are beautiful moments, where EO lives on a hobby farm and interacts with children with disabilities, but they are soon followed by brutality.

One scene of particular viciousness is staged after a football team wins a local cup. The losing team decides to blame EO simply for being there and beats him within an inch of his life. Skolimowski and cinematographer Michal Dymek do not spare the viewer, with the attack registering from EO’s point of view. Skolimowski not-so-subtly suggests that humans will fight over anything; he uses exterior shots that still show the scars of WWII on Poland. For every seeming note of progress that humans make, they stay the same.

Skolimowski and Dymek create dizzying visual landscapes for EO to travel through. At times, it seems that we are watching from EO’s perspective; at others, EO is a part of a vast spectacle. Dymek uses extreme close-ups on EO’s eyes to make the audience feel that they are seeing through him, as well as properly seeing him. In other scenes, the audience witnesses things that EO himself could not (often they are filmed in red, which incidentally, is a colour donkeys and other equine animals cannot recognise on the colour spectrum).

Skolimowski notes how out of balance humanity has become with their environment. He allows us to see the wonderful things that the species has been able to create (there is sumptuous art, beautiful buildings, towering dams) but seen through the eyes of a creature simply wishing to go home to the person he loves, the achievements are nothing. Furthermore, seen through the eyes of a creature who recognises the beauty of other animals (Skolimowski and Dymet use the camera to give the smallest and largest creatures a canvas where nature belongs to them), including those that are not able to be domesticated, the world of men and women is incidental unless it is destructive.

A murder is committed, perhaps two. One has justification, the other seems random. Human life is a small and finite moment in the wider schema of nature. EO’s life is also small and like so many other animals, it is disposable. As Skolimowski walks the viewer through his incongruous mixture of social realism and impressionist vignettes, he creates an ode to nature that is often hauntingly beautiful and diaphanous, leading us to contemplate how easily we disconnect from beings who, if not ensouled, are alive and worthy of kindness and dignity.

EO is not an easy filmic journey to undertake, just as EO’s own journey is fraught with constant perils. For some members of the audience, the frank and unsparing visuals of animals in pain will be too much. Skolimowski knits the pain into the central thesis of the film. There is no saviour for EO, as we find in the similarly themed Okja. There is just a donkey whose odyssey across Poland and Italy leads nowhere – but that odyssey takes the viewer on a journey that makes them question their place in the world and perhaps how speciesism has aided in losing touch with what being humane truly means.