Friday, September 17, 2010

The Temptation of St. Tony

Playing at times like a parody of an existential art-house film, The Temptation of St. Tony—the first Estonian film to crack the Sundance barrier—is sometimes brilliant, sometimes incomprehensible, and ultimately disappointing.

We first see Tony (Taavi Eelmaa), a mid-level factory manager, in a scene out of Fellini with a little Bergman mixed in. Dressed in white and carrying a big cross, he leads a line of black-clad mourners, shot from below against a bleak sky, as they carry a coffin to a graveyard. Even here, there's something intriguingly off-kilter: A car crashes in the background, apparently killing the driver, but the mourners march on, oblivious. Things soon get curiouser and curiouser as everything in Tony's life crumbles around him, leaving him marooned in a world full of random and rapacious evil.

The film unfolds like a nightmare, a Tarkovsky-esque series of numbered chapters studded with violence, carefully choreographed debauchery (you can tell it's European because the frontal nudity is mostly male), and grotesque surrealism. There's no narrative thread to connect the incidents—just Tony's constant presence and a few other recurring characters and symbols, including a black dog, severed hands, a lumbering brute who looks like Ed Wood favorite Tor Johnson, and a beautiful and doomed young woman with Louise Brooks bangs. Shot mostly in medium to long shots and long takes-sometimes too long-the vivid images and beautiful black-and-white cinematography pull you in. So do the little shards of black humor (Tony gives a homeless man a bottle of wine and the man pours it out, adding the empty bottle to his collection). Writer/director Veiko Õunpuu gets in some good digs at the capitalism that is apparently infecting even Estonia these days, too, like when Tony's boss makes him fire all the factory's employees to push his company's profit margin from 19-point-something percent to a nice round 20. And if the horrendous things people do to one another don't make you wish you could join the marathon drunks they keep embarking on, the sad Estonian songs they sing and the mournful American ballads that murmur in the background (I recognized "Motherless Child," Townes Van Zandt, and some bleak bluegrass) surely will.

But frequent homages to other films and filmmakers (mainly Tarkovsky, but also Buñuel, Cabaret, and even a little Texas Chain Saw Massacre) just recall how much better those other movies worked. There's not much soul in this soul-searching journey, whose what's-it-all-about? dialogue is strictly paint-by-numbers ("Why does man exist?" "What is a man's life worth these days? It's not worth shit"). Worse yet, there isn't a hint of grace. In Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky subjects us to a world of pain so we can understand Rublev's thirst for transcendence. In The Temptation of St. Tony, the blankest slate since Etch a Sketch witnesses acts of cruelty only to wind up joining the bad guys, in an ending that fails to move. A story like this should feel like a tragedy. Or a comedy. Or something.

Written for The L magazine

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