The Washington Post
Donkeys see best, worst of humanity
the deep end.
Jenny’s demise is just one of three grim donkey tales to figure into this year’s Oscar movies, between best-picture contenders “Banshees” and “Triangle of Sadness” and the Polish entry for best international feature, “Eo.” Each animal in the cinematic trio leads an anguished life, with human cruelty as the throughline. The filmmakers question what our harsh treatment of these beasts says about us. Hint: It’s not flattering.
Listen to the harrowing brays of the donkey in Ruben Ostlund’s “Triangle of Sadness,” a satire in which the obnoxious, self-serving guests of a luxury cruise end up stranded on a desert island. The wild animal is savagely killed off-camera by humans starved for meat — a disturbing occurrence that may have been more forgivable, given the circumstances, had some of the castaways not celebrated the violence.
Spot the same shameless glee throughout Jerzy Skolimowski’s “Eo,” a modern-day fable following the titular donkey through Poland and Italy. Eo begins his nomadic travels after getting separated from his caretaker at a traveling circus. He is picked up by a rowdy soccer team and then brutalized by its rivals, rescued by veterinarians who heal him before he is stolen and shuffled into a mysterious truck.
Eo’s luck fluctuates. He is the lens through which we interrogate humanity’s best and worst impulses.
Poor thing. Skolimowski shoots from Eo’s perspective in a few of his most brutal moments and closes in on his adorable downturned eyes in others, building a sense of pathos. The donkey projects an interiority his cinematic peers aren’t always afforded. (Kudos to the apparent acting abilities of real-life donkeys Tako, Hola, Marietta, Ettore, Rocco and Mela, who took turns portraying the character.)
“Eo” pays homage to Robert Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar,” the celebrated 1966 film about a donkey who also suffers the foolishness of humans. Skolimowski said in production notes that “Balthazar” moved him to tears. Since seeing the film decades ago, he added, “I haven’t shed a single tear at the cinema.”
A unique form of sorrow underlies the hardship of these on-screen donkeys, for the most part bred to carry the burdens of another species. There’s something to the wordlessness of their pain and the mystery of its depth. (No disrespect to Donkey from “Shrek,” who could certainly voice his complaints.)
One wonders whether Skolimowski might have shed another tear for Jenny in “Banshees,” the embodiment of lost innocence. Jenny is endlessly loyal to Padraic, as he is to her. He allows her into the family home as he sulks, and defends her presence to his irate sister: “I am not putting my donkey outside when I am sad, okay?” he says. Jenny’s company is worth having to scoop her poop off the kitchen floor. What a pity that such a treasured creature meets a tragic end, collateral damage in the perverse conflict between Colm and Padraic.
Oh, Jenny. Sweet Jenny! Felled by the pride of stubborn men.
“I am not putting my donkey outside when I am sad, okay?” Colin Farrell, in “The Banshees of Inisherin”