This article contains spoilers.

What might the adventures of a donkey reveal? What might we learn about the typical life of a domesticated animal in a human-governed and altered world, about contemporary Europe and the harsh environments animals, and humans, are subjected to, about these very human and animal subjects that pass through the cutthroat system, and about the emotions that pass through them?

Despite donkeys appearing as a topic befitting children, EO is not a children’s movie. It is a movie that depicts the grim realities of the human-animal world that we are familiar with, including realities we prefer not to see. 

After earning international acclaim and winning the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, EO has been selected by Poland as the official 2023 Oscar International Feature entry. Clearly a creation of animal lovers, it may be tempting to dismiss the Polish-Italian movie directed by Jerzy Skolimowski as “vegan propaganda”; indeed, one of the core ideas behind the film, as revealed by the credits, was to honour and spread the love for animals. Yet the movie and the six grey donkeys who play the title character may evoke more than empathy and endearment. 

Although the movie focuses on animals, the acting of the human part of the cast, which includes the famous French actress Isabelle Huppert, is far from subpar. This is all the more remarkable given that the movie only occasionally zooms in on the human characters, transforming humanity into both glimpses of stories and life-shaping forces at the same time. The slice-of-life snippets may, in fact, leave the viewer with more confusion than answers, providing mere fragments of dialogue and incomplete stories. 

Meanwhile, EO is not given a voice. The movie rightfully centres on its title character but employs a silent narrator: EO’s eventful life draws the line of the story, even if somewhat incoherently, and thus functionally fills the role of a narrator. We see the world through the donkey’s eyes but have no access to his thoughts. One may merely pick up on his body language and attempt to read and interpret his emotions.

EO is not that simple donkey

The donkey’s expressive ears and large eyes consistently point to the tactile nature of the movie; not being able to speak – EO communicates through his body. The non-verbal scenes are thus arguably more powerful than the dialogic parts, forcing a more physical experience of the movie, in touch with the way a voiceless animal may experience the world.

The viewer undergoes the same process, perceiving vicariously through the senses of the donkey; the corporal moments that may otherwise go unnoticed are the ones that linger, amplified by the animal senses – the way his owner pets him, the swaying of the grass, the noises other animals make. 

While being the main character of the movie makes EO the hero of the story, he is in reality not the hero of his own story: he has little to no agency in where his life leads him, with humans and the ruthless system they created making the decisions for him.

Throughout the film, the donkey has multiple jobs and roles that shift according to the needs and vacancies of the human environment around him: he is a circus performer, a therapy animal, a draught animal, a football mascot, a lucky charm, an emotional support animal, an inconvenience to be removed, a buddy and travelling companion, entertainment, and food. Rarely does he get to be simply a donkey. Instead, his life, along with everything that surrounds him, is shaped by the fickle human will.

Humans are not to be trusted, as they use him chiefly for their own interests and, once he provides no more benefit, abandon him. Even his first owner, the young circus performer who seems to be the first person to show him kindness, comes back to him to spend a brief moment together, only to leave him again. Nevertheless, with each new human who approaches and wants to take him along, EO follows, forgiving and agreeable. 

It is hard not to fall for EO’s gentle demeanour and deep, dark eyes, which the camera often zeroes in on. Nevertheless, his inner world remains out of reach. The creators hint at its potential depths by suggesting what he may be remembering or wishing for: the frequent flashbacks to his first owner may indicate he’s missing her and pining for affection – watching horses galloping in the field perhaps stirs a yearning for freedom. But there is no voice to confirm this.

This also means that we do not get many answers. Through the donkey’s eyes, there is mostly confusion. There is no complete, cohesive story. We may attempt to link the pieces, but in the end, we have no decisive answers to what really happened or the ever-popping why.

The average viewer may be frustrated by this, expecting more dialogue, narration, conflict, and action – things normally associated with human or anthropoid characters. Instead, there are lengthy artistic shots displaying stunning cinematography and sound effects, potentially additionally slowing the film for those less artistically inclined.

Replacing them with scenes revolving around the human characters and lengthening the parts about their human lives might make it a more attractive and immersive viewing for many moviegoers. Still, it would also make the film poorer. It is precisely because we only know what the donkey witnesses that the movie is so poignant.

To EO, human ways are baffling, bewildering, elusive, and ultimately irrelevant. What remains is the sheer emotion that the animal feels and would continue to feel even if it had all the answers – be it fear, joy, bliss, or pain and suffering. 

Of course, his subjection to the whims and wheels of circumstance could also be seen as an allegory for the ordinary person stuck in the Kafkaesque or Gogolian fight between a powerless individual and the disorienting, undefeatable system. EO seems harnessed not only to the various carts and wagons in the movie but also under the yoke of the more abstract, oppressive system pulling the wheels, as much as finding himself under them (and are the ones strapping him to the vehicles free of constraints themselves?).

The film does not shy away from showcasing humanity’s flaws. Humans are often depicted as self-centred, materialistic, and shallow, from the football fans who surrender themselves to partying and forget about EO just after celebrating him as their lucky charm to the horse traders who decidedly overlook the fact that the donkey does not match the requirements for horse salami.

Everyone in the film who takes EO does so with no regard for consequences: they bring him with them but don’t think this decision through and what it may mean for him. At best, they treat EO and other animals with dismissive ignorance and occasional kindness, and at worst, with conscious cruelty, such as at the fur farm, where terrified foxes are lined up and crammed in individual cages, with only enough space to turn around and scream. 

One of the scenes most telling of humanity’s dark side shows the repercussions of a local football match. The losing team’s outraged fans impetuously go after the other team’s fans and unleash their fury in a bout of violent retribution. The distance from the situation granted by the donkey’s perspective underlines its sad pointlessness.

In contrast to the poised calmness and patience EO bears his fate with, the movie’s human characters are intensely emotional, to the point of being irrational and fanatical. Throughout the movie, humans are explosive and ferocious, afflicted with surges of uncontrollable emotion, and driven into a frenzy by inconsequential events. The football-provoked madness doesn’t skip EO either, as the hooligans recognise him as the other team’s fans’ adopted mascot, and he thus becomes a scapegoat and outlet for brutal vengeance as well. 

It is interesting to note that the violence inflicted on humans is shown, whereas the violence against animals is implied and off-screen. Apart from one vindictive kick administered by EO in apparent protest, all violence in the movie is perpetrated by humans. This includes the sudden murder of a young man, killed by a stranger who unexpectedly appears behind him and slits his throat.

There are no firearms or gangs, and the abrupt, gruesome, and unceremonious action of cutting the throat seems like a particularly violent and brutal way for a person to die, even if it is a standardised method of slaughtering animals. The shock value of the human murder provides an interesting contrast with the invisible, implicit death of the animal hero at the end of the movie.

The young man’s killing may, in fact, foreshadow the outcome of EO’s journey. Although the ending is unclear and seemingly open-ended – all we are sure of is EO’s confusion – it is probable that the two characters are killed in the same way, even if one’s death we see and the other’s we don’t. 

While for us, human viewers, it may be hard to reconcile with the emotions brought on by the film and we may choose to focus our attention on something else, the animal characters in the film don’t have this luxury. EO has no choice as he is passed from one owner to another and transported to and fro wherever humans send him off to. His short-lived acts of rebellion can’t deny that he ultimately depends on human kindness.

At the end of the film, EO is pushed around with his tail curled up in fear, inexplicably having found himself surrounded by cows, and not wanting to go with them but having nowhere to run. He has no choice but to walk straight into the end humans have decided on for him. 

With all the jobs imposed on him and the many adventures he finds himself in, in a short span of time, EO goes through more lives than the human characters around him seem to. The same unaccountable, mysterious forces responsible for this meandering path also led to his demise.

This may seem like a strange and shocking journey to some, yet unsurprising, albeit unsettling to others. Many a viewer might find this film dull, likely due to our egocentric need for a subject that we can readily relate to, but it is precisely this self-absorbed focus on the humanoid that renders the happenings of this film possible. But even though EO is not a human story, it is a story about humanity nonetheless.