‘Eo’: A donkey’s tragic tale, rapturously told



(3.5 stars)

Through a donkey’s large and expressive eyes, “Eo” shows us the beauty of the world and the cruelty of humanity. If the wordless title character can’t understand the latter, neither can director and co-writer Jerzy Skolimowski. Yet the esteemed 84-year-old Polish director has made the animal’s story as visually ravishing as it is emotionally devastating.

The model for “Eo” (whose title is derived from the donkey bray often rendered in English as “heehaw”) is severe French Catholic director Robert Bresson’s 1966 “Au Hasard Balthazar,” about a teenage girl whose donkey is tormented by a series of owners. That austere black-and-white film focused more on the people around the donkey Balthazar during his transit from birth to death, although it does suggest that the donkey is a Christ figure. Skolimowski largely (though not entirely) avoids religion, replacing it with a timely concern: environmental destruction.

The director introduces Eo in a flickering red-tinted sequence that, like many in the film, is initially bewildering. It turns out to be a circus performance featuring the donkey and the person who may be his best friend, a young dancer (Sandra Drzymalska). Their relationship is soon sundered. As animal rights protesters picket the circus, creditors arrive and seize its few animals: two camels and Eo.

Thus begins an odyssey that leads the beast (played by six gray donkeys) through multiple owners and circumstances, including several episodes in which he (or she) meanders freely. Among these are a few comic moments and many lovely passages, captured splendidly by Michal Dymek’s expressionistic camerawork. But the mood can shift suddenly and violently, as when a nighttime idyll in a forest full of unthreatening creatures is disrupted by the lights and sounds of hunters’ laser-guided rifles.

Eo experiences, mostly as an observer but sometimes as a victim, the brutality of a fur farm, a slaughterhouse, and a vicious and pointless battle between rival tribes of soccer hooligans. He also passes through landscapes defeated and degraded by human activity, hauling junk through a sprawling scrapyard and wandering alone past towering windmills and a massive dam. Foxes and birds are among the collateral damage Eo encounters.

The donkey also wonderingly observes horses gamboling in a field, glimpsed through the narrow window of a transport van, and tropical fish in a tank in a store window. Nature is everywhere encircled and entrapped.

These sequences, often shown in wide shots, depict objective reality. But much of the movie is rendered in close-up or dreamlike subjectivity in an apparent attempt to visualize Eo’s experience of the universe. (In one curious reverie, the donkey seems to turn into a robot.) Pawel Mykietyn’s score shifts from whispery to epic and is sometimes interrupted by the EDM, opera or heavy metal played by the mostly coarse human characters.

The film’s speedy edits and choppy continuity function as parallel means of simulating the animal’s limited understanding of his travels and travails. “Eo” is gorgeous and mysterious, more attuned to sensation than to narrative. If viewers sometimes feel lost, that just brings them closer to the donkey’s consciousness.

Skolimowski and producer/co-scripter Ewa Piaskowska (the director’s wife) make one wrong move toward the film’s end, after Eo has been transported to an estate in Italy by a sympathetic traveler (Lorenzo Zurzolo). The donkey grazes in the distance while Isabelle Huppert makes a cameo in a brief scene that is perhaps designed to link “Eo” to the French cinematic tradition from which it sprang. But the episode merely distracts from the tale. No wonder the animal takes his leave as soon as he notices an open gate.

Nearly everything else in “Eo” is flawlessly conceived and executed. The director, who’s made such first-rate if not widely seen films as 1970’s “Deep End” and 1982’s “Moonlighting,” is still an assured and audacious filmmaker. Eo’s fate is both shocking and unsurprising, but the sadness of the donkey’s saga is at least partly assuaged by the rapturous empathy with which it’s told.

Unrated. At the AFI Silver Theatre. Contains violence against animals, including humans. In Polish, Italian, English and French with subtitles. 88 minutes.

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