None of the six donkeys that star in Jerzy Skolimowski’s Oscar contender EO will receive a statue at the 2023 Oscars ceremony, even if the film does pull off an unlikely upset in the Best International Feature Film category against its stiffest competition, Edward Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Animals aren’t eligible for Academy Awards, though plenty of movies embraced by the Academy have featured animal actors, like Terry (Toto in The Wizard of Oz) and Popcorn Deelites (Seabiscuit in Seabiscuit).
But centering EO on a donkey as the subject rather than as an object, as the star rather than a supporting figure, is what makes Skolimowski’s movie a unique experience, both in and outside the context of the Oscars. Whatever does
Skolimowski, the eclectic veteran Polish filmmaker, painter, and actor behind movies like Essential Killing and 11 Minutes (and a bit player, oddly enough, in 2012’s MCU movie The Avengers), filters EO through the eyes of its protagonist, a lovable, lonely, lost donkey ambling around the Polish and Italian countryside. As much as a camera can show an audience the world according to a beast, cinematographer Michał Dymek tries. EO’s eyes are Dymek’s constant, an anchor he returns to repeatedly for reaction shots between representations of humankind’s worst and best. The donkeys playing EO can’t act or react as a human performer would: He comes across as unflappable, placid and cool. But his expressionlessness is an invitation to consider how he sees what we see.
Skolimowski’s contribution to cinema’s “sad donkey” niche joins films like 1966’s Au Hasard Balthazar, alongside 2022’s Oscar-nominated examples Triangle of Sadness and The Banshees of Inisherin. It’s also kin to movies about critters other than donkeys, like Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow and Michael Sarnoski’s Pig: productions that respect their animal companions as characters, but still hand the narrative reins to humans.
EO is an abiding tragedy. Heartbreak is baked into the movie’s logline: EO, a donkey happily performing before adoring circus crowds with his handler, Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), is wrested from her custody by the state. After a series of transfers from one owner to another, he escapes and hoofs it all over creation, ostensibly trying to wend his way back to Kasandra. His misadventures on the way range from the warm to the weird to the horrific.
“The state” in this movie is led by a pompous government official who, after liberating the circus’s menagerie from the performers, pats himself on the back with a speech about “amending irregularities.” Skolimowski lays out his thesis right here: The people least qualified to administer animal welfare are the ones in positions of power, rather than people like Kasandra, whose love for EO is tender and unconditional. Admittedly, one of Kasandra’s fellow circus folk does abuse EO, but he doesn’t treat people much differently. Throughout the film, there are countless ambassadors for human-animal connections who hold stronger credentials than he does.
The farmers who welcome EO to their stable; the special-needs children who visit the farm and shower him with affection and petting; the soccer fans who adopt him as their mascot after winning a game against their rivals; richling Vito (Lorenzo Zurzolo), who whisks EO away from a crime scene to his family’s villa, and chats with him like an old friend rather than a random donkey — these characters represent humanity in the best light possible as stewards for animal well-being.
On the other hand, there’s the furrier who kills caged foxes; the losing soccer team’s violent hooligan fans, who take out their frustrations on EO; and the hunters creeping through the foreboding woods at night, lighting their way with green laser sights. Together, they make up the “people suck” side of EO’s journey.
But winnowing the movie down to that misanthropic message serves Skolimowski’s work poorly. EO sugarcoats nothing: Humanity’s darkest tendencies are shown in unflinching detail, all the way up to murder. (Vito’s relationships with his impassioned stepmother — played by Isabelle Huppert with her usual level of hard-jawed intensity — doesn’t suggest much faith in human relationships, either.) But there’s light in that darkness, a wellspring of goodwill toward man, all reflected in the bottomless depth of EO’s gaze. He’s aware of the kindnesses shown him and the cruelties inflicted on him, even when he isn’t the focus of the frame, or in the frame at all. And he’s aware that he misses his caretaker and hopes to return to her, to the point where he leaves idyllic safety to go find her, as donkey-POV flashes make it clear what he’s thinking.
It’s rare that the Oscars recognize a film like EO, where an animal takes the spotlight and humans play the secondary cast. If the Academy had ignored Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Everything Everywhere All at Once, EO would indisputably be the year’s most unique nominee. For all Everything Everywhere’s idiosyncrasies, though, the Daniels are invested in the human condition, explored from a human point of view.
EO invests in the animal point of view. Not even Seabiscuit can make that claim. The matter of experience observed is vital; while every film is a chance to see the world through another person’s eyes, movies rarely offer the same opportunity for animals. And of the films that do, next to none of them reach the kind of stage the Academy Awards afford. The Academy could do with more movies like EO — but most of all, moviegoers could too.
EO is streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available for rental or purchase on Amazon, Vudu, and other digital platforms.