None of the six donkeys starring in Jerzy Skolimowski’s Oscar nominee EO will be given a statue at the 2023 Oscars, even if the film lands an unlikely setback against its toughest competition, Edward Berger’s, in the Best International Feature Film category. No news from the Western Front. Animals are not eligible for Academy Awards, although many films embraced by the Academy feature animal actors, such as Terry (Toto in The Wizard of Oz) and Popcorn Deelites (Sea Biscuit in Sea biscuit).
But center EO on a donkey as subject rather than object, as star rather than supporting figure, is what makes Skolimowski’s film a unique experience both within and outside the context of the Oscars. Whatever do winning Best International Feature Film will be downright conventional compared to EOa movie that makes the best argument yet that movies need more animal perspectives.
Skolimowski, the eclectic veteran Polish filmmaker, painter and actor behind films like Essential murder And 11 minutes (and a little playeroddly enough, in the 2012 MCU movie The Avengers), filters EO through the eyes of the protagonist, a sweet, lonely, stray donkey strolling through the Polish and Italian countryside. As much as a camera can showing an audience the world according to a beast, cameraman Michał Dymek tries. EO’s eyes are Dymek’s constant, an anchor to which he repeatedly returns for reaction shots between representations of humanity’s worst and best. The donkeys playing EO can’t act or react the way a human performer would: he comes across as imperturbable, calm, and cool. But his expressionlessness invites us to think about how he sees what we see.
Skolimowski’s contribution to cinema’s “sad ass” niche joins films like those from 1966 Au Hasard Balthazaralongside the Oscar-nominated examples from 2022 Triangle of sadness And The Banshees of Inisherin. It is also related to movies about critters other than donkeys, such as Kelly Reichardt’s First cow and that of Michael Sarnoski Pig: productions that respect their animal companions as characters, yet hand over the narrative reins to humans.
EO is an enduring tragedy. Heartbreak is ingrained in the film’s logline: EO, a donkey who acts gleefully before worshiping circus crowds with his handler, Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), is taken out of her custody by the state. After a series of transfers from one owner to another, he escapes and chases all of creation, ostensibly trying to find his way back to Kasandra. His misadventures along the way range from warm to weird to gruesome.
“The state” in this film is led by a pompous government official who, having freed the circus menagerie from the performers, pats himself on the back with a speech about “correcting irregularities.” Skolimowski lays out his thesis here: The people least qualified to manage animal welfare are those in positions of power, rather than people like Kasandra, whose love for EO is tender and unconditional. True, one of Kasandra’s fellow circus people do abuse EO, but he doesn’t treat people much differently. Throughout the film, there are countless human-animal connection ambassadors who have stronger credentials than him.
The farmers who welcome EO into their stables; the special needs kids who visit the farm and shower it with affection and petting; the football fans who adopt him as their mascot after winning a game against their rivals; richling Vito (Lorenzo Zurzolo), who takes EO from a crime scene to his family’s villa and talks to him like an old friend rather than a random donkey – these characters represent humanity in the best possible light as stewards for animal welfare.
On the other hand, there is the furrier who kills caged foxes; the to lose the football team’s violent hooligan fans, venting their frustrations on EO; and the hunters who creep through the foreboding woods at night, lighting their way with green laser sights. Together they form the “people suck” side of EO‘s journey.
But the winnowing of the film to that misanthropic message does Skolimowski’s work badly. EO sugarcoats nothing: humanity’s darkest tendencies are shown in unflinching detail, all the way to murder. (Vito’s relationship with his impassioned stepmother — played by Isabelle Huppert with her usual level of hard-hitting intensity — doesn’t suggest much faith in human relationships either.) But there is light in that darkness, a wellspring of goodwill towards man, all reflected in the bottomless depth of EO’s gaze. He is aware of the kindness shown to him and the cruelties inflicted on him, even when he is not in the picture, or not in the picture at all. And he’s aware he misses his caretaker and hopes to return to her, to the point where he leaves the idyllic safety to go find her, as donkey POV flashes make it clear what he’s thinking.
It’s rare to see a movie like the Oscars EO, where an animal takes the spotlight and humans play the secondary cast. If only the Academy had ignored those of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert Everything Everywhere Everything at once, EO would indisputably be the most unique nominee of the year. For everyone Everything everywhereHowever, the Daniels’ quirks have made the Daniels invested in the human condition, explored from a human point of view.
EO invests in the animal point of view. Not even Sea biscuit can make that claim. The perceived experience is vital; while every movie is an opportunity to see the world through someone else’s eyes, movies rarely offer the same opportunity for animals. And from the movies that Doing, almost none of them reach the kind of podium that the Academy Awards afford. The Academy could use more movies like EO – but above all, moviegoers could too.
EO is stream on The Criterion Channeland is available for rent or sale Amazon, Vuduand other digital platforms.