By Don Simpson | September 20, 2010
Director: Veiko Õunpuu
Writer(s): Veiko Õunpuu
Starring: Taavi, Eelmaa, Ravshana Kurkova, Tiina Tauraite, Sten Ljunggren
The Temptation of St. Tony opens with death — a funeral procession to be exact. Then, a car crash; which at first seems random and absurd, but in the grand scheme of this surrealist interlocking of events it’s significance is revealed when one of the survivors of the car crash drips blood on the immaculate interior of Tony’s (Taavi Eelmaa) new Mercedes Benz. This causes Tony to drive over a black dog, which prompts Tony to discover a stash of dismembered body parts, which delivers Tony to the local police department where he meets a mysterious woman (Ravshana Kurkova). The chain of events continues for nearly two hours…
Tony, the frizzy-haired manager of a local factory, waxes to tremendous existential lengths about his — and mankind’s — reason for being. Tony’s social and economic stature allows for various comments on the post-communist environment of…wherever the hell we are. (The Temptation of St. Tony was shot in Estonia.) The foreign evils of capitalism and modernism encroach upon society, as the newly developed bourgeoisie strives to represent sophistication and superiority. Though he is by definition one of them, Tony sees no point to the bourgeois attitude.
Capitalism and the “the provincial vegetating state” of the bourgeois lifestyle effects Tony to no end. A new breed of petty, shallow, dull and hateful people possessing a “hysterical mania of self-awareness” have arisen from the ashes of Communism; for Tony only desolation and emptiness pervade from this new modern life. The ridiculous desire for maximum profit causes Tony’s superior to close the plant (the plant’s promised return on investment was 20%, but the actual ROI was 0.7% shy of that goal — a measly 19.3%). The imported (American) concept of “swinging” (wife-swapping), and the reported “benefits” thereof, prompts his second wife (Tiina Tauraite) to cheat on him. Tony too has fallen prey to the infidelity of Capitalism as he has developed a strange attraction to the mysterious woman from the police station.
The lower class has become an unbearable burden to the rich, an ugly blight tainting their existence. The lower class has not remained immune to Capitalism either, as the commodification of objects has trickled down to them (which is represented brilliantly when a homeless person empties a wine bottle, because the empty glass bottle has more worth than the wine that once filled it). The ravaged poor that aimlessly traverse the desolate landscape — who at times are indistinguishable from the rich drunkards who foolishly stumble about — plague the Capitalist world like mindless zombies.
The ruins of Communism surround Tony. The remaining non-modern structures — most of which are not fully intact — appear to have been severely ravaged by time (and possibly a barrage of bombs). Tony is merely a spectator witnessing the death and destruction of his old world. Being has evolved into nothingness. Tony, our St. Anthony (as epitomized by Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych painting The Temptation of St. Anthony), has been catapulted from the normalcy of his prior life into sheer demonic torment (which is represented most literally in The Golden Age, a Lynchian 1930s-style underworld cabaret for bourgeois hedonists). Tony’s only hope is that he will not succumb to temptation and the afterlife will be more fulfilling and pleasant than this living hell.
Stylistically pilfering from some of cinema’s great auteurs (such as Eric Rohmer, Luis Buñuel, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Aki Kaurismäki and Jim Jarmusch), Estonian filmmaker Veiko Õunpuu’s The Temptation of St. Tony is like a ghost from cinema’s past (due at least in part to the luscious and meticulous black and white cinematography by Mart Taniel). Õunpuu cleverly balances the creepy and foreboding nature of its dreamlike surrealism and the dark humor of Scandinavian absurdism with a strong and deep philosophical undercurrent which is ripe with social and political commentary. It is worth noting that the overwhelmingly negative interpretation of Capitalism is most likely a direct result of the economy of Õunpuu’s homeland of Estonia being the second worst hit of all 27 European Union members during the 2008–2009 economic crisis.
The dialogue is sparse, fragmented and seemingly random, yet in totality it forms a rich tapestry of philosophical and theological ruminations. Random characters expound upon the existence of man and man’s life worth; or they quote William Blake as they light their cigarettes. I suspect audiences will be polarized by Õunpuu’s narrative techniques, either declaring The Temptation of St. Tony to be a tedious and pretentious mess or a landmark work of cinematic genius.
The Temptation of St. Tony is a co-production between Estonia, Sweden and Finland. It was Estonia’s submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 83rd Academy Awards.