You’d be surprised by the number of films featuring a donkey. We’ve seen them in “Shrek”, “Pinocchio”, “My Donkey, My Lover & I” and Robert Bresson’s 1966 French drama “Au Hasard Balthazar” which must have inspired Jerzy Skolimowski’s new film “EO”, Poland’s 2023 Oscar submission for Best International Feature. The film is operatic, filled with beautiful cinematography and symphonic sounds, yet it tells the simple story of a donkey liberated from a circus, who encounters more bad people than good during its erratic life journey. You will never look at another animal the same way again.

The film opens amid red strobe lights, flashes of our long-eared furry antagonist are interspersed with a young lady in what resembles a Bjork video or rave party. There is no EDM music to accompany the pulsating beams, just Pawel Mykietyn’s orchestral score which is reminiscent of composer David Shire’s work on “All the President’s Men.” As the lights go up, we realize the setting is a Polish circus where EO the donkey is part of The Amazing Kasandra show. The crowd erupts into a standing ovation as Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska) and EO exit stage left not realizing it would be their final show under the Big Top.

Kasandra is a loving trainer, but she doesn’t own EO, the circus does. In between shows, he’s put to work pulling a wagon for a carny with a short fuse. As he’s about to hit the donkey with a whip, Kasandra interjects, “Don’t you dare!” Cinematographer Michal Dymek zooms in for a closeup of EO’s eye, it a subtle indication that the story is being told from the viewpoint of our hoofed antagonist without having to resort to any kind of “donkeycam.”

The circus is shut down by animal rights activists and EO begins the next chapter of his life, on a farm working among thoroughbreds. Skolimowski captures these magnificent beasts with a slow-motion shot over grassy rolling hills. As these pampered horses get groomed and spiffed, EO takes it all in perhaps reminiscing about the love once shown to him by Kasandra. The contrast between his role on the farm and that of his Equus (genus) counterparts is clearly defined in a scene where EO pulling a work cart watches a beautiful white stallion take part in a glamorous photo shoot with a model that could easily grace the pages of Vogue.

From here EO moves on to another farm where he becomes a support animal for children with disabilities, those scenes are so tender I hoped this was where our eponymous hero would live out his life, but no, Skolimowski and co-writer Ewa Piaskowska have quite a journey in store for EO filled with funny moments, shocks, and people at their worst behavior.

Dymek’s stunning cinematography is highlighted during a scene where EO is liberated from humans. As he encounters nature in all its glory, it’s frightening, especially for a domesticated animal. A few moments under the veil of night reveals spiders spinning their webs, owls perched up high on sentry duty while frogs croak in the night and wolves howl in the distance. Suddenly it feels as if you’re watching a horror film.

The film’s final chapter includes a cameo by Isabelle Huppert who plays a wealthy countess who crosses paths with EO when his current handler, her stepson and priest (Lorenzo Zurzolo) stops by the mansion leading to high drama that would seem at home in a Pedro Almodóvar film.

Framed in a 1:33 box ratio, “EO” is a remarkable film that just may change the way you view an animal. It’s filled with empathy, stunning cinematography, and a beautiful score. This year, donkeys have made their way into several good films including “The Banshees of Inisherin” and “Triangle of Sadness” but “EO” is by far the best. Unforgettable.

(4 stars)

Now showing at the Texas Theater

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Joe Friar head and shoulders

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.