Wednesday, December 14, 2022

A masterwork about the life of a donkey


   Director Jerzy Skolimowksi's EO has virtues that most directors seem to have forgotten. 
   The film says everything that needs to be said in an economical one hour and 26 minutes. 
    A simple story is rich, evocative, and deeply meaningful -- and told with a minimum of dialog.
   Moving through a variety of episodes, sometimes without benefit of expository transitions, EO qualifies as one of the year's best films, a masterwork from an 84-year-old director who has no time for superfluities.
  With a terrific assist from cinematographer Michael Dymek, Skolimowski spins a fable-like tale about a donkey named EO. Actually six were used in shooting the movie. 
  But what elevates EO has less to do with the lovable donkey that becomes its main character than with how humans impose themselves on EO. 
   The movie begins with EO working in a traveling circus. He teams with Kasandra (Sandra Dryzmalska) for a popular animal act.
  Unlike others in the circus, Kasandra cares about EO. She offers him security and affection.
   Hopes of happiness vanish when EO is sent to a horse farm as the result of a protest by an animal rights group. There, he becomes a beast of burden, a fate that had been foreshadowed when a circus hand used him to haul trash to a dump.
  At the horse farm, EO occupies the bottom position on the totem of animals prized by humans. He's uncooperative, so he's taken to a farm where donkey's are raised for trail rides. EO has trouble adjusting to another unfamiliar surrounding.
   EO misses Kasandra and we feel the pain of a creature subjected to the whims of the humans around him. When Skolimowski shows us EO's dark gleaming eye in closeup, we sense deep loneliness.
   After a brief reunion with Kasandra, EO sets out on his own. He hopes to find Kasandra. He wanders through a forest at night. When a soccer game is disrupted by hooliganism, EO suffers a severe beating. He later encounters a truck driver and a wandering young man who introduces him to his mother (a briefly seen Isabelle Huppert).
    EO's journey is Dickensian, an innocent creature is sent into a world that's less than welcoming. He travels from Poland to Italy, moving through situations he wasn't made for.
   Cinema buffs will no doubt cite Robert Bresson's 1966 Au Hasard Balthazar as an obvious predecessor, but it doesn't matter whether you've seen that movie. EO is its own mysterious creation, enriched by Pawel Mykietyn's unsettling score.
   And note: EO isn't Eddie Murphy's Donkey in Shrek. He's not a vehicle through which human traits pass; he's a donkey, often shown in closeup to remind us that the movie is about him, as well as about the humans he meets.
   Still, we're asked to understand that if we don't see EO's worth, we put ourselves at odds with much of the life that inhabits our embattled planet. EO may suffer for his innocence but Skolimowski knows that we've long since lost ours. 
   Through some of the year's most captivating and even surreal imagery, Skolimowski (Shout, Moonlighting) restores some of the world's mystifying strangeness, something we've blurred with ignorance, callousness and unrecognized responsibility. 
     EO is many things, but most of all it's a heartbreaker of a movie -- and I don't mean that in a corny way.

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