Synopsis: A donkey in Europe tries to adapt as they find themselves in myriad situations & predicaments. (Streaming on Amazon Prime as of March 2023)
EO needs — like all of us–companionship, safety and food. In particular, EO needs grass, sweet grass. Sometimes the little donkey has trouble even getting that, as he is shuffled to different owners.
Director Jerzy Skolimowski and his collaborator, screenwriter Ewa Piaskowska eschew a typical narrative structure, framing a story and adding the donkey’s improvisation to give a sense of an equine point of view.
EO is a Sardinian donkey who lives in Poland. Millions of donkeys around the world are drafted into work pulling carts and carrying loads, but EO is a performer. He works with a young woman, Kasandra ( Sandra Drzymalska) at a sh***y circus. EO is made to wear a skirt. Their circus act is a dramatic performance that ends with EO pretending to collapse and Kasandra reviving them with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. EO springs to their hooves — yay! The audience cheers.
After taking their bows, they are followed by “Cube Man” whose unimpressive act consists of tossing and twirling a big cube made of plastic rods. At least when a five-year-old does something like this in their backyard, it’s cute. But paying to see a grown man do this? Not exactly cutting-edge stuff.
When EO is not performing, Kasandra spends hours communing with him. She sensitively strokes his gray fur and rests her face against his blocky, adorable head. EO seems to feel completely at ease with her.
Unfortunately, the circus is owned by a cruel bastard. He is determined to exploit everyone as much as possible and this includes hitching EO to a cart and whipping at him to make him move. When donkeys are afraid or unsure of what is happening, they may freeze. Of course, the cruel bastard has no patience for this; he needs to bring some scraps of metal to the junkyard and get his payment of five zlotys (one euro)!
Later, we see people outside the circus, protesting the treatment of the animal performers. It seems like the sort of enterprise that would force some poor bear to dance or ride a bike whilst wearing overalls. Cruel bastard, greasy-haired and chainsmoking, seems to relish defying the do-gooders. But he’s not so pleased when his circus goes bankrupt and the animals are confiscated.
Besides EO, there are camels being led to tractor trailers as the circus is dismantled and sold off. EO’s friend Kasandra is distraught as the little donkey is maneuvered into a trailer. But she doesn’t have the means to care for him. All she seems to have is some booze and a motorcycle-riding boyfriend.
As the vehicle lumbers off to the countryside, we see EO’s point of view: a herd of horses runs in a field along the roadway. Our hearts leap and then sink a little–maybe it is the same for EO. The horses are caught in a moment, living as Nature intended, moving together outdoors as a herd. But this has nothing to do with EO’s life experience.
What follows is a visual journey of EO’s life over many weeks. We see them navigate the vicissitudes of life, all the while continually and intelligently assessing options. EO’s life is framed by domestication instead of living by their wits with a herd, looking for good grasses.
By turns, EO has both relative ease, labor, and even danger. There are situations that unnerve him, but he remains plucky. His instincts prod him to look for food and herd mates. Sometimes he gets to be around his own kind: at a donkey stable where disabled children interact with the gentle animals and at a stable with fancy horses that all seem to be stallions chomping at the bit. At the horse stable, EO is curious about an imposing dappled horse. He watches as the high-strung horse is led away to be attached to an exercise machine that has him trotting in circles. Hey, let him run around outside!
EO does have the good fortune of meeting kind people. A woman at the donkey stables offers him some pats and a carrot, but they are unmoved. EO has been bumped from place to place and takes some time to acclimate. Another time, EO is on their own and taken under the wing of a kind man who leads the donkey away from a fraught scene where a human has been attacked.
EO is steeped in realism most of the time, but it’s also an artsy film. Not only do we see what catches EO’s attention , but there is also the POV of a sort of spirit cruising nearby at times. We travel along, flying like a great migratory bird above a wooded valley. We ski swiftly along a snow-pelted trail. What does it mean? Who knows.
In the latter half of the movie, the filmmakers suddenly become interested in a man and woman at an estate where EO has found himself. While he grazes on the pricey lawn, we glide indoors. My, my, here is a hot priest-type (Lorenzo Zurzolo) who is accused by a countess (Isabelle Huppert!) of frittering away money on gambling. It seems they have a “history.” Alas, EO leaves them behind, because, it is, after all, EO’s movie and he has seen something beyond the estate’s grounds that piques his curiosity.
Another word about the artsiness of EO… Sometimes, when EO is under duress, a red filter covers the camera. In one instance, an injured EO dreams of his friend from the circus. Another time, we see a robotic “dog” picking its way across the terrain. What does it mean? Your guess is as good as mine. But I do know enough to identify the red filter as a leitmotif.
Watching EO, you’ll def wish you could help them out, when they are in a bind. Like when they happen upon a small-town futbol match. EO edges closer to the pitch, intrigued by the running humans. He quickly ends up a de facto mascot of the winning team. The fans lead him to a local bar where the raucous crowd expose EO to loud music, secondhand smoke and proffered beer. Enough of this nonsense, EO seems to think. They barrel out of the bar, with a team scarf draped over their stout shoulders, and into the fresh air.
The director has stated that he made the film out of a love for animals and Nature. And we certainly get a sense of EO as a worthwhile and lovely creature. (Speaking of which, there are six donkeys who portray EO: Hola, Tako, Marietta, Ettore, Rocco and Mela. Meet them here.)
The filmmakers seem to ask: if you can have empathy for EO, surely you can act on empathy for other creatures as well. Indeed. And may I suggest a follow-up? Let’s find out what the eff was going on between the priest and the countess!
P.S. Some facts about donkeys… They originated in North Africa & were domesticated at least 5,000 years ago. Today there are about 40 million donkeys. Donkeys are used for labor in large parts of North Africa, the Middle East and Mexico. Donkeys prefer warm, dry areas — their big ears help them dissipate heat from their bodies. Also, zebra-donkey hybrids are called zonkeys or zedonks, lol. If you’d like to learn more about donkeys, click here.
P.P.S. I was moved to do some research based on EO. I’ve read the horrid facts so you don’t have to. So… if you don’t want to be a party to cruelty: Don’t wear fur, whether trapped or “farmed”… Don’t go on camel rides or eat camel meat (would you do that?!) because camels in North Africa & the Middle East are often beaten to “tenderize” their meat before slaughter and brutality is common in “training” them for rides… And salami may contain donkey meat. Yikes! Best to go veggie, for sure.
P.P.S.S. Much like carriage horses (eg., in NYC and Sevilla), many donkeys are forced to labor without adequate shade or water. Santorini, Greece, where tourists are hauled up & down hills all day by donkeys, is an example of this.
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