Film review: EO

A director’s love for animals and nature drives this unusually beautiful film following a Polish donkey on a road trip after his circus closes.

Apr 06, 2023, updated Apr 06, 2023

Donkeys are having a moment. A donkey excited Oscars audiences when it appeared with Colin Farrell on stage, impersonating Jenny, who won hearts as Pádraic’s loyal friend in The Banshees of Inisherin. And now we have EO, a circus donkey on a road trip through contemporary Poland and Italy, looking for love.

It is an absorbing, unusual, sometimes harrowing and cinematically different movie experience that shows the hidden world of animals being themselves. Some scenes are art pieces: EO in the forest strafed by the green laser sight lines of a rifle (but it’s not him they are after); EO watching a bushfire, coming across a frog, or dwarfed on a bridge before columns of water cascading down a concrete aqueduct.

But the point of EO (think EeAaw) is not in the way that we see a donkey. This is the world from his point of view as he makes his way through life, mute, watchful, trusting but also careful.

He was happy in the circus where he worked with Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), who protected him and gave him his name, made him garlands of carrots, and baked cupcakes for his birthday. But the circus is shut down and they are separated, so he breaks out, hearing her name upon the wind.

Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski, this film was an Oscar nominee for Best International Feature and it is not a children’s movie. The donkey – Skolimowski used six Sardinian donkeys because the breed is particularly gentle and melancholy ­– is never anthropomorphised; in fact, the film’s startling power is in the way it captures his wildness, the nobility of his donkey nature and his unwavering innocence.

He meets people, good but mainly bad. He is on hand for a soccer match and becomes the mascot for the team whose boozy celebration descends into hooliganism and violence. At a truck stop, a man is murdered and EO is tied to a post as the police come; in a fur factory, animals are tortured and he lashes out and is back on the run. He meets a young priest, Vito (Lorenzo Zurzolo), who is returning to the family home – his mother, the countess, is played by Isabelle Huppert ­– after disgracing himself through gambling. EO is outside in the garden, among fruit trees, lawn and shade; it looks pleasant and safe, but he hears Kasandra calling.

Some people chat away as though he is human – Vito confess to eating donkey-meat salami and makes an apology of sorts. To call EO an animal rights movie would be to demean its grace and artistic intent, but the film leaves no doubt about our obligation towards animals as fellow creatures whose right to exist is so readily abused.

Many films go to great lengths to display humanity at its worst, but I can’t think of one that has left me so ashamed of being human.

EO is screening in cinemas nationally from April 6.

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