Friday, August 31, 2012

The Temptation of St. Tony (2009)

There is a great temptation to write about "The Temptation of St. Tony" (2009), only it is imperative to find the right words to describe this strange film, so as to convey to the fullest, the kind of effect it had on yours truly. Estonian writer-director Veiko Õunpuu’s film is actually a homage of sorts. The title alludes to the myth about Anthony the Great, an Egyptian Saint who travelled to the desert and while on his pilgrimage, encountered some supernatural temptations by the demons, a subject that is popularly dubbed "The Temptation of St. Anthony" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_the_Great#Temptation), and adapted by many a great artists and authors in their visual arts and literary work respectively.

Ounpuu reimagines this lore in the contemporary setting, as experienced by a man, simply named, Tony (Taavi Eelmaa), who is a mid-level manager at a factory. Tony is living in a nice house, albeit in desolate surroundings, and is unhappily married to a woman (Tiina Tauraite), who is very vocal about her hate for Tony, is perhaps suffering from some psychological illness, and is unabashedly having an affair with a friend of Tony’s! 

A series of increasingly bizarre events start occurring in Tony’s life, with his father’s funeral as the starting point. Tony is seen carrying a huge cross while walking with the funeral procession, when a car, coming from a distance meets with an accident a few feet away from him. Tony stops for a second, looks at the car, appears confused, wondering if he should stop to help, but continues with the funeral procession anyway! Later one of the passengers in the car, all injured and blood-soaked from the accident, staggers back and somehow, manages to reach Tony. He is clearly in need of medical attention, but Tony isn’t doing anything; just looks on, while the injured person doesn’t ask for anything either, except to sit in Tony's luxurious Bentley for just a moment! After much reluctance, Tony relents. As the passenger gets inside the Bentley, he sobs, and later calls Tony a "good man"!

This absurdist scene is just the beginning of a spiral descent into madness, as the episodic narrative plunges into the depths of irrationality, but the underlying theme of this wildly hypnotic ride starts to take shape. Tony hits a dog on his way back home, attempts to bury it, in the woods, but doesn’t, because he comes across several severed human hands lying around! He tries to report it to the police but has to escape from there, owing to an outlandish episode concerning the interrogation officer! This is where Tony meets Nadezhda (Ravshana Kurkova) a girl Tony sets his heart on later, rescues her from the Police, who have her in their custody for some reason, not apparent at this point. But is Tony’s good deed devoid of any expectations?

At the center of all the randomness, is an existentialist philosophy about a person’s individual accountability, and Tony’s crisis of faith, not strictly related to God’s silence but related to the futility of the goodness! This is reinforced in an eerie scene in which Tony wanders into a deserted church, where a giant crucifix lies on the ground, rested against a wall. The only person in the church is an old priest, who mentions that it has "been long since he felt God’s presence", for he believes Tony reached the church seeking some kind of help. Tony, however, comes off as a skeptic, who poses a vague question, if there’s a "paradise…and all that" waiting at the end of a "good life"! The priest infers that, perhaps, Tony is seeking a reward for his morally upright ways. And if so is the case, is one really a good man if he does good deeds with expectations in mind? Or will the good deed matter only if done selflessly? The priest then mocks him; "You are nothing but a common merchant", he says, "with the soul of a common merchant", adding, "even your good intentions have to be paid for by someone"! This scene takes a chilling turn, when the priest recognizes Tony’s occupation without Tony ever mentioning it to him!

These questions about morality keep appearing throughout the film in some form or other to Tony, and are constantly brought up by people around him. Is it possible that the people he encounters are demons subjecting him to mental and physical torment? In a later scene, one other character, a dangerous man, Herr Meister (Sten Ljunggren), possibly the owner of a nightclub that looks like a ruin in hell, locks Tony in a cage and mentions to him that chivalry is driven by lust, again questioning the selflessness of Tony’s good deed of saving Nadezhda!

There is also a parallel theme which hints at an attack on capitalism and the stark contrast between the attitudes of the rich and the poor. While Tony and his colleagues/friends are sitting at the table in his grand house, having a lavish meal, discussing topics like "the age of the internet" and "wife swapping", a homeless person appears and stares inside through their glass door! A person at the table suggests that maybe the man needs a drink. Tony promptly picks up a bottle of liquor, goes out and hands it over to the man, only to find that he empties the bottle all over the ground, and simply adds the bottle to the numerous empty bottles he has been collecting, possibly to sell them and buy some food with the money!

Later, Tony is asked to fire all the workers at his factory immediately, and shut it down! Instantly a lot of workers are rendered jobless! One of them is, incidentally, Nadezhda’s father! In a superb scene, Nadezhda invites Tony over for a cup of tea. Tony is more interested in how clean the cup is, tries to clean it a little bit, takes the cup to his mouth to sip the tea, but in the end doesn’t drink it at all!

This angle of the narrative takes a savagely funny turn in the scene of the men who arrive at Tony’s place to put up a fence, that apparently, Tony never asked for! The men are taken aback and take their disbelief of Tony’s denial of having sought their services so far as to slam back at him; "maybe you are trying to suggest that we do not exist!” It is a genius job of writing!

It is episodes like these, and more, that make "The Temptation of St. Tony" a mesmerizing film, not to mention the nods to various past and present masters of surrealism, like Luis Bunuel, David Lynch and Federico Fellini. The bravura sound design and dream-like imagery are in fact,  definitely Lynch inspired! Even the lead actor, Taavi Eelmaa, looks and behaves in a manner which makes him seem like a lost sibling of Henry (Jack Nance) from David Lynch’s "Eraserhead"! The breathtaking, crisp, black and white cinematography by Mart Taniel (that reminds of the later works of Bela Tarr) and the awe-inspiring original music by Ulo Krigul, give this film a feel that is capable of putting the viewer into a trance. As it nears its bizarre, but "satisfying" (albeit in a twisted sense) climax, in fact, even a seemingly ordinary (but not quite) sequence benumbs the mind, with its jaw-dropping intensity, purely because of the goose-bump inducing crescendo that the score builds up to! With its underlying themes of morality and faith, Õunpuu also pays a tribute to the spiritual cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman. More Tarr and Tarkovsky influence is seen in long takes accompanied by meditative music in the background in some scenes, especially the one in the derelict church.

Thus, Õunpuu isn’t really breaking new grounds with "The Temptation of St. Tony", in terms of style and execution; he is obviously inspired. But any filmmaker of today, who has what it takes to even attempt to come close to the greatness of the aforementioned legendary auteurs, deserves respect! And what’s more, despite some obvious thematic influences, using the ancient myth of St. Anthony’s temptations, as source material, and interpreting it in a contemporary setting, is no mean feat. "The Temptation of St. Tony" is a mind-numbing audio-visual experience. For maximum effect, watch alone, and use a pair of headphones!

Score: 10/10

2 comments:

  1. Excellent review of what seems to be a fascinating film. Certainly one we will check out at the first opportunity. Referencing a Catholic saint, questions of morality, and filtered through a Lynchian perspective... what's not to like? The photographic stills too indicate an evocative and atmospheric cinematic style.

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    1. Thank you Las Mayanas. Glad you appreciate the review...hope you enjoy the film as much as I did.

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