Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Temptation of St. Tony. (2009) Veiko Õunpuu

Like an art school project that got too deep for its own good, created in black and white flourishes and wearing its baffling abstract influences on its sleeve (Tarr, Lynch), The Temptation of St. Tony was described by EUFF as, "A Euro-modern riff on Bosch’s painting, The Temptation of St. Anthony."

Here is an image of the triptych, widely regarded as a powerful work about a tormented soul urged to participate in sin. However, if you've seen the film, the painting itself might produce a sort of shrugging of the shoulders. Nevertheless:

For a much better view look Here, or Here.

I don't know if I got all that out of the screening I attended, but this seriously strange film is at least as busy as the painting with a cast of odd, indecipherable characters who each bring a temptation or two to central frizzy-haired Henry Spencer-like character, Tony.

There are moments early on when the film is darkly humorous, and rather enjoyably so. It seems like this is going to be a trippy, fun ride. A worn-out looking Tony, leading a funeral procession for his deceased dad with a small band ensemble (big bass drum, out of tune horns) takes mourners on a dirge through an Estonian countryside only to witness one of the strangest car wrecks you'll ever see, a solo accident crashing the car straight into the Baltic, apparently causing another death. The procession obviously notices, stops for a gaper's delay, shrugs the event off, and continues in their mournful march. It's a laughable moment of irony and inhumanity, perfectly setting the tone for all the events Tony's about to be thrust into.

Continuing in a mode of black comedy, a few minutes later at a business dinner the cast is approached by a bum who stares in through the window at either the elegant meal, or the people at the table, or perhaps their wine bottle which he wants. They are all put off, grossed out by the transient and not knowing how to handle the situation. Tony picks up the bottle, walks outside, gives it to the man, who empties it of its contents and saves it with a bag of recyclables he's been carrying all along. Scenes like this provoke ironic laughs, but they rarely show up again as the film envelops us in its non-linear redundancy.

Tony himself is a good-natured fellow, constantly thrown into artificial situations that no one would know how to handle. The fact that some of the situations make no sense, in a film that makes very little sense, actually brings film viewers out of the experience itself and into the realization that we are watching a movie, and at points just waiting for it to end.

The film divides itself into six parts, represented by Roman numerals, small black letters against a large white backdrop. It continues to follow the considerate Tony, who seems to live in two alternate universes, one with his wife and daughter and the other with a girlfriend he's left the family to be with. In one of the more interesting scenes which probably lasts about twenty minutes and could be turned into an outstanding short film, Tony is silently followed in a dream-like state, camera behind him ala the Dardennes, and he ends up in a cabaret nightclub called the Golden Age where all of the most perfect Lynchian elements come to life. These elements are already suited for the strange and surreal nighttime club experience anyway (think: Betty and Rita at the Club Silencio performance in Mulholland Drive, or anyone in Twin Peaks who had a dream experience with The Red Room of the Black Lodge). The scene extends itself into a cannibalistic nightmare, suggesting man's ability to trounce on another (for any number of reasons), the whole thing witnessed through the eyes of a now shocked Tony. It is seriously an excellent scene, and is easily the scene in the film that puts director Õunpuu on the global map.

I don't want to oversell this film though. It is tedious to sit through, a nightmare in its own right. Of interest in the theater were the loud yawns coming from a young female viewer behind me who obviously wanted everyone at the Siskel to know how thoroughly bored she was with the whole thing (and I honestly can't say that I blame her), countered by the protests coming from an older woman in front of me who was upset about the rude yawning behind us. (Can't say that I blame her, either.) I probably agree more with the woman sitting in back of me than the frustrated lady in front.

But Õunpuu has created something worth discussion here, I'm just not sure I know the crowd that would be interested in discussing it. When I was a kid, a group of film nerds and I loved digging into Eraserhead, constantly fidgeting with the material in attempt to solve the riddle of its mystery. They were always fun discussions, often leading to red faces, heated arguments. I'm not certain that type of discussion could be attempted with St. Tony, because I'm not sure there are any real life parallels you can drag out from all these enigmatic visuals. There are a few moments, though, where the visuals are wildly fun, confrontational and chaotic in a certain sense -- but you wade through much filler to find the golden nuggets.

This was the official Estonian submission for Academy Awards consideration but it didn't make the shortlist for final nomination. Compared to a film like Dogtooth, which can be seen from so many different perspectives, I can see why St. Tony didn't make the cut. While unique and absurd, it is overly long and at times quite forced, and other perspectives will be hard to come by because really any one perspective might be difficult. I will, however, keep my eyes peeled for any future film by Õunpuu, who has an obvious talent for visuals but might need to corral that wild narrative, at least enough to give the audience an idea of what's going on.

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