The gentle and glorious "EO" reveals the inner life of a donkey

Llike an abused star, nature often gets the bum in the movies. When the light is good, you can always just turn on the camera and take a beautiful picture. But it takes a lot of attention – your eyes must learn to listen, perhaps, to everything in front of them – to catch its ferocious, muted majesty.

Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski does this and more in its intimate marshmallow of a film EC, the story of a donkey who travels from Poland to Italy, experiencing kindness and its complete opposite at the hands of humans, communicating with the other animals and flora around him, sometimes even just catching smells and secrets carried by the breeze. It’s a sad story, but not a punishing one; brings out a kind of joyous melancholy. Animal lovers — and Skolimovski himself is one of them — can sometimes be hard to watch. (I don’t recommend it for kids.) But this great and unpredictable director, now 84, cares a lot about his donkey and our feelings. Any violence happens off-screen, perhaps not so much to soften the effect as out of respect for the main character and us. The last thing Skolimovski and his co-writer, Ewa Piaskowska (also his wife), want to do is throw us out of the film and its delicate spell. There is no more beautiful film this year; shot by Michal Dimek, it often appears lit from within, glowing softly like a lantern. And even beyond that, EO may be one of the greatest spirit animal films ever made, as far as we can tell.

EO begins with dream imagery, a circus scene colored red. We glimpse a woman in a satin suit, glimpses of gray donkey fur, the halo-like wonder of a large, unblinking eye. this donkey EO— a name that reflects the sound it makes, a song built right into it — has a job as a performer. He also has a colleague who loves him, Cassandra (Sandra Dzymalska). When they are apart, he will remember her gentle kindness. Skolimovski shows this in gentle flashbacks; if he anthropomorphizes, he also makes a pretty good guess at what might be going on inside an animal’s head.

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The circus went bankrupt. All animals are sold out. EO is carted off to a new home, which in a way, except for Cassandra’s absence, isn’t so bad: he now lives in what looks like a large stable somewhere in the Polish countryside. It’s a brand new structure and several pretentious dignitaries are present to cut the ribbon. Eventually the camera pans from them to EO standing watchfully nearby. Around his neck is a regal ring of carrots, ready to chew whenever he wants. For now, he is the guest of honor; later he will be drawn to pulling a small cart and that’s good too. Until it isn’t. Unnerved by his proximity to two rowdy horses introduced for the first time, presumably for mating purposes, he knocks over a shelf full of trophies. He is going to his next home.

This one isn’t too bad either, although he’s too depressed to accept the one fat carrot a well-intentioned farm lady tries to offer him. (She has no idea how paltry her offer is compared to his previous ornament of 24 carrots.) EO’s adventures eventually take him elsewhere: to a majestic night forest, half scary, half glorious, where a fat spider weaves a web of fairy thread and skinny foxes twitch in the moonlight. He finds his way to a small village, where he roars at the display of goldfish-filled aquariums in a shop window (who knows why?) and later becomes a hero to a local football team, who adopt him as a kind of mascot. But immediately after, something terrible happens to him. There is intercession, healing. Somehow he ends up in an Italian mansion – Isabelle Huppert is there in a chic-intimidating velvet dress with red patterns. Because why not?

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This is the ebb and flow of EC: we both look at him and see the world through his eyes. Running in his pram, his legs moving like little machines, his ears pointing to the sky, he is a marvel of determination and efficiency. His fur has a nice, soft rough texture – you can feel it without even touching it. His eyes, proportionally huge, hold and reflect all his thoughts, dreams and memories—or maybe they’re just reflections of our own? bThe point is that he becomes our twin. What happens to him happens to us.

EO won the jury prize of Kan last spring; when Skolimowski took the stage to accept, he thanked all six Donkeys who played EO by name. In the months since I first saw this movie, many people I’ve talked to about it have nodded and said knowingly, “Ah, like of Bresson Au Hasard Balthazar.” Well, yes – and no. Skolimowski talks about his love for this film and how much it touched him and how it certainly influenced him EO. But even if Skolimovsky’s donkey suffers at times, the film is hardly about his suffering. Skolimovski’s approach is slightly experimental but ultimately direct. His film is perhaps about all the reasons we love animals, all the reasons we can’t explain. We look at them and see a soul there – no scientist can yet prove its absence – and this helps us to discover our own. Sometimes it’s easier to believe in animals than to believe in God. And much easier to believe in them than in ourselves.

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