Misery is alive and well in 21st century Estonia, as illustrated by The Temptation of St. Tony, a fascinating but willfully perverse trek through a surrealistic landscape from director Veiko Ounpuu. Simian-featured actor Taavi Eelmaa stars as the title character, the financially comfortable staff supervisor of an Estonian corporation whose life spirals into a nightmare as he endures a series of increasingly upsetting trials, including but not limited to: his father’s morose funeral by the sea, the discovery of mass murder in the woods, a trip to a sub-rosa cabaret that spotlights peculiar non-grisly forms of misogynistic torture on-stage, entrapment in a cage while a loved one is victimized a few feet away, and attempted decapitation by a chainsaw-wielding maniac.
If these capsule-sized windows into Tony’s world seem too loose and scattershot as described here, and fail to establish a clear idea of the movie’s narrative arc, rest assured: it scarcely has one. Coherency isn’t on this picture’s agenda. Ounpuu divides the material up into five chapters, each tagged with a roman numeral, and even within the chapters, sequences basically stand on their own, bearing only the faintest connections (and in some cases, no obvious ones) to the developments that precede and succeed them. Like David Lynch, Ounpuu seems interested in cutting himself free from standard dramatic architecture. To cite one of many examples, we never find out how Tony winds up in the cage, if he manages to escape from the cage, or what its emotional and psychological ramifications are. Perhaps Ounpuu feels that any of this would be too pedestrian.
Also recalling Lynch (Lost Highway, with its dual narratives, immediately comes to mind), this sort of concept and approach can be excruciatingly hard to take for some viewers, made even more difficult by the emotional pull of individual sequences. The film presents one spellbinding scene after another, but when viewed broadly, the dramatic events don’t connect -- they hang so loosely and freely from one another that one inevitably grows frustrated by Ounpuu’s refusal to sustain and build any single thread. And yet, at the same time, the film’s narrative incoherency can be thematically justified as a fixture of the director’s absurdist paradigm.
Despite evidence of Western influences, St. Tony does benefit from an aesthetic and a mise-en-scene that provide a specific and highly effective visual commentary on contemporary Estonian life. As shot by Mart Taniel in high-contrast black-and-white, and set in one of the grimiest and most alienating onscreen worlds outside of the sci-fi or horror genres (most of the outdoor scenes take place on mud-encrusted landscapes, with heavy, overcast skies and the impression of chilly, dirty air), St. Tony deliberately feels cruelly oppressive from first frame to last. The film also bears a consistent tone -- one of austere brutality, wrought by the sadistic actions of many of the supporting characters -- and the impact of this behavior combines with the environs before us for a shocking cumulative effect. More specifically, Ounpuu succeeds at hitting the viewer like a sledgehammer with his own apparent conviction that the world (especially his corner of it) is a sad, nasty, evil, and frankly revolting place, occupied by men and women scarcely more evolved than savages, and seldom guided by rationality. There are subtle traces of drollness throughout the movie -- as when an automobile crashes next to Tony’s father’s funeral procession, and the mourners fail to let the tragedy interrupt their proceedings -- but this is the humor of desperation, not of joy. It wasn’t a capricious decision to end the picture with Nina Simone’s mournful, dirge-like cover of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” which drives home a reminder of the one universal human plague: we live alone, we die alone. The rest, Ounpuu seems to be arguing, is all sound and fury.
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- Released: 2009
- Review: Misery is alive and well in 21st century Estonia, as illustrated by The Temptation of St. Tony, a fascinating but willfully perverse trek through a surrealistic landscape from director Veiko Ounpuu. Simian-featured actor Taavi Eelmaa stars as the title cha… (more)