Poland, Italy, 2022
Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski
With the donkeys Hola, Tako, Marietta, Ettore, Rocco, and Mela (EO) and many humans, including Sandra Drzymalska (Kasandra), Lorenzo Zurzolo (Vito)
In 1966 French director Robert Bresson shot one of his greatest films, and arguably one of the greatest (think of the views of Jean-Luc Godard), at least most radical, films in French cinema, “Au hasard Balthazar”. It relates the tragic life of a donkey, clearly striving to stick as close as possible to whatever perception of the world the beast of burden has. Underpinned by a Christian vision of life – the donkey is suggested as a martyr in our times – the narrative is a searing investigation of our human morals and values through an unexpected angle, with rather dismal conclusions to draw.
The bold idea of Bresson wowed. His feature was duly referenced, and actually partly recycled, by Indian director John Abraham a decade later, in 1977. The love affair between a shy girl and a young donkey became a love affair involving a distinguished but lonely lecturer but if the donkey is still the lead character, the human society is more clearly observed and analyzed; “Agraharathil Kazhuthai – Donkey in a Brahmin Village” is more conspicuously a satire, a searing attack on the varna-based social hierarchy hurting so much modern, republican India.
With co-screenwriter Ewa Piaskowska, veteran Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski has yet other ideas in mind. For a start, EO is already a fully grown-up animal when the film begins – and a celebrity on its own, as the partner of a circus artist, Kasandra. But things go wrong for two reasons: the circus turns out to be bankrupt, and the donkey is repossessed as would be a car or a piece of furniture on the one hand, and on the other the show was anyway doomed because of angry demonstrators claiming to defend animal rights and as a consequence seeking to let the circus animals free, that is to end their supposed exploitation, or to make a fuss about a non-existent problem if you take the view of circus artists (and a few others).
A world of red lights and warm embrace, spent under a spotlight and under the wing of a dove-like girl, is abruptly shattered. From this fall from grace, this destruction of love, EO would not recover – montage clearly suggest a mind haunted by fond memories of the circus life (indeed, animals must have a sense of the past). The 2022 film can start for good, anchored in the road movie genre: EO is always on the road, inside a vehicle or on his four feet, traveling seemingly in the hope of meeting again Kasandra, clearly drifting through the world men shaped to their own purpose.
Taking it seems a page from Bresson’s aesthetics, Skolimowski’s camera often scrutinizes EO’s head as the donkey watches and listens intently what is going around him, especially what humans do listens and watches the human activities, especially when they display their natural born nastiness. A recurring image is the close-up on one of its eyes, a troubling aperture looking right into another. But it goes a few bold steps more: climaxing harrowingly when a bunch of hooligans beat EO because it seems it brought luck to the soccer team playing against their own athletes, the camerawork crafts genuine POV shots. More broadly, the film develops a peculiar, stunning visual identity which is highly kinetic, wonderfully innovative, but also disorienting and cryptic. To follow EO is to share a view on the world that refutes worn-out cinematographic conventions and to watch instead audacious and astonishing pyrotechnics juggling with colors, motions, and textures. They could be mere tricks if they were not so clearly associated with the strong presence and moving obstinacy of EO – they hark back to the notion of cinema as a sensory experience, barely contenting with narrative but eager to show the world in a fresh, fascinating, fantastic way.
Narratively speaking, indeed, Skolimowski spends less time with humans than Bresson, or Abraham, or any filmmaker dealing with the place of animals in a human-shaped world. Like his predecessors, the picture he delivers about his fellow humans is not at all flattering and optimistic. There are tender moments, like the time when EO is used, like other donkeys, to awaken and widen the horizon of kids with mental disabilities. But other moments bluntly remind the audience of the greed and nastiness ruling many of our actions, especially when capitalism and nationalism rule mostly unchallenged. Still, EO is often rescued, its last and most interesting benefactor being a young traveler, Vito, who brings the donkey to his native house somewhere in Italy. But the episode proves to be a dull distraction, the film straying unfortunately away from its focus on EO to tell a weird tale of an awkward mother-son relation.
The ambition of the film turns out to be close to what Jack London attempted and arguably achieved in his novel “White Fang”: telling the story of an animal from the animal’s viewpoint, avoiding the sentimentality and the readable devices of an anthropomorphic narration in order to focus on the animal’s experience and sensation. “EO” goes a long way to reach the goal, till the brutal but logical end: a black screen and a silence briefly interrupted by the thumping of an electric shock. EO is culled as the cows it ended up accompanying: from this point of view, the black screen and the silence are the only elements the film can convey – this death could not have been shot from the outside, the camera lingering on the dead, or dying body, as was the case in Bresson’s and Abraham’s movies. Tragedy has been a long way coming in fact: the massacre of animals are quickly part of EO’s journey, its puzzled eye discovering out of the blue a fox in the death throes, over a terrifying night where hunters roam and rip up the darkness with laser lights or the corpse of a bird which did not realize it was flying into a wind turbine.
EO’s journey has been hectic, surprising, incredible (a lot of different lands are crossed in what is probably a short travel, a matter of months) but doomed. And that was also the point of the film: making a statement about animal respect and health – the title card introducing the end credits is a clear statement about what prodded Skolimowski into shooting this feature. What, however, is even plainer and genuinely touching, is the artistic imagination and technical skills he managed to rally to make it, with the precious help of his director of photography Michal Dymek – and for an 84-year old cineaste, this is truly awesome.