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This brash film about a wandering donkey may just leave you in tears

The donkey's eyes seem to take the measure of modern life in Jerzy Skolimowski's film, <em>EO</em>.
Festival de Cannes
The donkey's eyes seem to take the measure of modern life in Jerzy Skolimowski's film, EO.

We all have things we don't like in movies. For some it's horror, for others bloodshed, for still others, nudity and sex. For my part, I've always found it excruciating to watch a film in which animals are shown being abused.

I was filled with dread at the prospect of seeing the new film EO, which is a riff on Robert Bresson's Au Hasard, Balthazar, a painful masterpiece in which a donkey is ground to dust by the world's inhumanity. But I knew I had to see it because it was made by one of my cinematic heroes, the Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, who at age 84 is enjoying an astonishing late career resurgence. So I dragged myself off to a screening. And I'm glad I did. Far from being a cavalcade of misery, EO is a thrillingly imaginative piece of filmmaking: a strange, haunting epic about a donkey that couldn't feel more of our moment.

The donkey's name is EO, and as the action begins, EO is part of a small circus act with a loving young woman trainer. But when the circus goes broke, EO is sold off to farmers. They don't treat EO badly but the donkey remembers a happier, earlier life and soon escapes, beginning a journey across modern Europe that carries EO from forests and towns, to villas and scrap heaps the size of small Alps.

Now, normally a film like this would focus on the mean people who surround EO's wanderings. But the people here aren't all bad. Along the way, EO encounters all manner of human beings from the kind to the heartlessly brutal. Yet in a bold move, Skolimowski doesn't give precedence to the human side of things. He stays centered on his donkey hero, giving EO's existence an independence and worth equal to any of the humans we meet. We come to know the world from EO's point of view — the film's alien beauty suggests an animal's perceptions — and we share the donkey's emotions.

Skolimowski constantly shows us EO's dark eyes, which seem to take the measure of modern life. What they're witnessing and judging is our world with its rampant despoiling of nature, and in particular, its treatment of animals — from the looming wind turbines that slaughter birds in flight, to hunters with laser-guided rifles gunning down wolves, to the industrial food system that endlessly drives animals into the meatpacking plant. We spend the film fearing what may befall EO.

Now, a sense of the cosmos being out to get you has been present in Skolimowski's work since the beginning. Not surprisingly, perhaps, as his father was executed by the Nazis and he himself grew up in the repressiveness of Communist Poland. A man of many gifts — he's also been a boxer, a poet, a painter and an actor, even in Marvel Movies! — Skolimowski enjoyed a terrific run from the 1960s to the 1980s, making great movies like Barrier, Deep End and Moonlighting. Then in his mid-40s, he seemed to go cinematically fallow. What nobody could have guessed was that, in his eighth decade, he'd catch fire again, turning out films like Essential Killing and 11 Minutes that crackle with Young Punk audacity.

This panache is on display everywhere in EO, with its onrushing camera, color filters, aggressive music and utter confidence about throwing viewers into the donkey world where there's more poetry than plot and nobody explains what's going on. The film is so brash, freewheeling and inventive that, if I didn't know Skolimowski had made it, I'd have assumed it was the work of a brilliant 25 year old discovering what they — and the movies — can do.

Part of what makes EO feel so alive is that it speaks to today's huge, ongoing shift in consciousness about animals and our increasing awareness that we treat them horribly. This is a film filled with compassion for the exploited, ill-treated creatures of this world and electric with anger at those who, through malice or thoughtlessness, perpetuate cruelty toward the powerless.

Jean-Luc Godard famously said that Bresson's donkey film gave you "the world in an hour and a half." You can say the same of Skolimowski's revamped version, which may be another way of telling you that this is a movie that may leave you in tears.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.