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Glorious, tender and gorgeously shot, this Oscar-nominee follows the adventures and hardships of a circus donkey.
By Sarah Ward
November 09, 2023
By Sarah Ward
November 09, 2023

David Attenborough's nature documentaries are acclaimed and beloved viewing, including when they're recreating dinosaurs. Family-friendly fare adores cute critters, especially if they're talking as in The Lion King and Paddington movies. The horror genre also loves pushing animals to the front, with The Birds and Jaws among its unsettling masterpieces. Earth's creatures great and small are all around us on-screen, and also off — but in EO, a donkey drama by Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski (11 Minutes), humanity barely cares. The people in this Oscar-nominated mule musing might watch movies about pets and beasts. They may have actively shared parts of their own lives existence the animal kingdom; some, albeit only a rare few, do attempt exactly that with this flick's grey-haired, white-spotted, wide-eyed namesake. But one of the tragedies at the heart of this astonishing adventure is also just a plain fact of life on this pale blue dot while homo sapiens reign supreme: that animals are everywhere all the time but hardly anyone notices.

EO notices. Making his first film in seven years, and co-writing with his wife and producer Ewa Piaskowska (Essential Killing), Skolimowski demands that his audience pays attention. This is both an episodic slice-of-life portrait of EO the donkey's days and a glimpse of the world from his perspective — sometimes, the glowing and gorgeous cinematography by Michal Dymek (Wolf) takes in the Sardinian creature in all his braying, trotting, carrot-eating glory; sometimes, it takes on 'donkey vision', which is just as mesmerising to look at. Skolimowski gets inspiration from Robert Bresson's 1966 feature Au Hasard Balthazar, too, a movie that also follows the life of a hoofed, long-eared mammal. Like that French great, EO sees hardship much too often for its titular creature; however, even at its most heartbreaking, it also spies an innate, immutable circle of life.

It's amid strobing red lights that EO makes his debut, and in the embrace and safekeeping of the doting Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska, Mental) at a travelling Polish circus. They perform, but they're also the best of friends beyond the big top, a bond that she doesn't ever want to end. Alas, swiftly after EO starts, protests engulf the donkey's home, with animal-rights campaigners striking and the troupe's management going bankrupt. Sold off with the other critters, the mule will meet his gentle and kind human pal again, but the movie's tale from here has almost as many strands as EO's own tail — including as he traverses the Polish and Italian countryside, complete with stints at a horse stable, a farm, wandering free, avoiding hunters, maybe bringing good luck to a local football team, definitely enraging their opposition, being accompanied by a young priest and more.

After EO's liberation, the change of scenery doesn't initially seem too troubling or taxing. His next abode gets a fancy opening ceremony with dignitaries cutting ribbons, and gifts him a bountiful carrot necklace — the literal kind. But when he's startled by horses and knocks over a display stacked with trophies, he's moved on. There, he's offered just one chunky vegetable and appears despondent. Next comes a reunion, an opportune escape, the forest by night, feuding soccer clubs and awful violence, plus an animal hospital, a fur factory, the meat trade, a lonely truck driver (Mateusz Kosciukiewicz, Magnesium), that man of the cloth (Lorenzo Zurzolo, Under the Amalfi Sun) and a countess (Isabelle Huppert, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris) in a red dress in an Italian mansion. EO is also seen by spiders, frogs, owls, foxes and a Black Mirror-style robot dog. He canters across landscape sometimes left in its natural state, and sometimes blighted by humanity's footprint. And, while moseying through a town, he stops to neigh at fish in an aquarium.

As with everything in EO's frames, that moment of communion between mule and goldfish is visually and emotionally striking. It also says oh-so much about Skolimowski's determination to let his eponymous critter just be an animal — more than that, about his success at achieving that feat, and also why. Viewers can read into EO's staring towards the glassed-in fish, and his braying, as an exchange between different types of creatures controlled by humans. The audience can also take it as a comment on the cages that people place around the animal kingdom, and how rare it is for them to be free of such influence. Or, it can be observed as simply a donkey reacting randomly because that's what a donkey, and all life, often does. The broader movie itself operates in the same fashion. It serves up ebbs and flows where one thing happens, then another, then more still, while so clearly and movingly knowing that that's just how being alive goes, and also always witnessing how EO's story takes the path it does because of humanity's dominance over the natural world.

EO might boast the incomparable Huppert among its cast, but its stars to whinny about are Tako, Hola, Marietta, Ettore, Rocco and Mela. Skolimowski thanked them each by name when the movie shared the 2022 Cannes Film Festival's Jury Prize — coming in only behind Palme d'Or-winner Triangle of Sadness, then Grand Prix-recipients Close and Stars at Noon — and the care and notice that the veteran Le Départ, Deep End and The Shout filmmaker gave on the Croisette to the six donkeys who play EO is mirrored on-screen. This wouldn't and couldn't be so emotive, immersive and absorbing a film as it is if it didn't truly bask in its mules' presence with pure affection. For the feature's 87 minutes, this is their world, and EO's. For that running time, viewers see EO's donkey protagonist as animals are so scarcely seen: as everything, no matter the good and bad turns that come their way, and the life-and-death course they chart as we all do; as heroes in their own story, too.

As a piece of contemplation about the relationship between humans and life around us, EO also brings documentary Gunda to mind. It's just as revelatory and wrenching as that dialogue-free, black-and-white farmyard doco — but, as set to an ever-changing, sometimes-pulsating score by Paweł Mykietyn (a veteran of Skolimowski's 11 Minutes and Essential Killing), it firmly makes the most of its sounds and colours. Everything clashes and crashes around EO, hues, textures, noises, tunes, camera angles and vantage points among them. In one especially stunning scene with an entrancing beat, the donkey scampers through and observes the woodland, green lasers from gunsights beaming bright in the dark of night against the leafiness and its inhabitants. The effect is otherworldly, as is the entirety of this haunting and touching film as it peers at life so often ignored, undervalued and exploited on this very earth.

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