In 2023, cinema goers have been blessed with not one, but two phenomenal on-screen donkeys that will find a way to embed themselves into your heart, before you even realise they are animals. Jenny from 'The Banshees of Inisherin' has got her fair share of plaudits as a scene-stealer against the likes of Colin Farrell, but wait until you experience the titular Eo (played adoringly by Marietta, Tako, Kateřina Holánová, Rocco, Mela and Ettore), a donkey who travels with curiosity as the focal point in 'EO'.
A legend of Polish cinema, Jerzy Skolimowski's ('Deep End', '11 Minutes') latest film is loosely based off the French film 'Au Hasard Balthazar', and has been nominated at this year's Academy Awards for Best International Feature - and with good reason.
'EO' opens with red strobe lights on the centre stage of a circus, where Eo is seen finishing up his latest routine with his trainer (Sandra Drzymalska, 'Sole') - who by all accounts he adores with mutual love and affection. However, debts and the like for the circus ringmaster means Eo must leave the circus, and thus begins the trials and tribulations of a travelling donkey across the Polish and Italian countryside. Through his journey, Eo will experience all sides of human nature that we as a society have to offer. From the highs of kindness and nurturing warmth, to the lows of cruelty and nasty coldness of others, this film is not afraid to show all the kinds of people we are - warts and all.
Eo finds himself as part of petting zoo, a stable, a rescue pound, a football hooligan mascot and even gets caught up in a dodgy meat trading scheme, so to say he's seen it all seems an understatement. But this road drama is no 'Planes, Trains & Automobiles'. Skolimowski challenges his audience to look inwards and ask themselves the question of what kind of person we want to be. Most impressively, he poses this question amidst a visually striking and often transcendent piece of film.
'EO' is unlike any film I have seen before, which is yet another reason this film needs to be applauded and celebrated by a wider audience. Skolimowski somehow manages to seamlessly put together shots of haunting beauty, a dull sadness, and remarkable wide frames with striking lighting and picturesque landscapes. Close-ups of Eo's eyes are often followed by a seemingly unrelated happenstance, and yet it all comes together in a way that is not jarring, and instead frequently engrossing. The power of the magnitude of Eo's reactions is somehow so vast, which coming from an animal with no dialogue is very impressive filmmaking. In fact, one of the strengths of 'EO' is the minimal dialogue, and how visuals alone drive the story and the power of the message.
'EO' is unlike any film I have seen before, which is yet another reason this film needs to be applauded and celebrated by a wider audience. Skolimowski somehow manages to seamlessly put together shots of haunting beauty.
Due to the nature of the plot, audiences may not find every mini-adventure interesting or magnetic, but Eo's next chapter will soon follow, and it refreshes the film all over again. At one point there is a murder, and Eo's next destination seems miles away - but before you know it, we are placed in the midst of an incest family drama with an Italian countess (Isabelle Huppert) and her priest stepson. What? Yes, it's as mad as it sounds, and even though it might take you out of the film for that brief period, it all ties together neatly. Having said that, there is a scene that feels like a hallucinogenic trip to the forest, and a good minute of screen time dedicated to a robot dog, which in an 80 minute film can feel significant.
How Skolimowski is able to pull that off is a question that can be answered by those far more knowledgable than me, but don't discount the impact of using an animal as a lens for your film. The fact that it's an animal means it's not acting, it can't be acting - it's an animal, and that somehow evokes so much more emotion than you can imagine. There are brilliant actors who make you feel completely lost in the world they are projecting, but 'EO' has an eerie realism with a space that Skolimowski has created, that when matched with Eo's reactionary shots, give over a complete vulnerability that is sure to tear your heart apart.
I was not prepared for the ending, and although there are certain hints to it throughout, it nevertheless leaves a taste in my mouth that just won't go away. Transcendent and often spellbinding, 'EO' puts all sides of humankind on the table for us to dissect and explore. We may not always find the answers we desire, but the beauty of this film lies with the simplicity of the exploration.