You know you’ve stumbled upon something special when a film can simultaneously summon up Saw and Ingmar Bergman. It doesn’t happen very often these days: A movie plants itself into your consciousness without the advance guard of fanfare and hype that seems to trumpet every filmic spasm of the cultural consciousness.
It is therefore a unique, nicely discombobulating sensation to watch the Estonian full-on cerebral-cortex assault that is The Temptation of St. Tony (2009) without the preamble of spin. How below the radar is The Temptation of St. Tony? The Internet Movie Database reports that it earned a tragic $747 on opening weekend before it was heroically rescued by distributor Olive Films for the DVD market. It’s hard to think of a better advertisement for Estonian cinema: The Temptation of St. Tony makes you want to dig deeper into the how and why of a contemporary film culture that could produce a marvel of this magnitude.
The Temptation of St. Tony is a film so steeped in art-house references, it makes Madonna look like a bastion of originality. Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Kubrick, Buñuel, Lynch, Bergman: The film is a visual potluck of influences mashed into a savory and mildly sick-making hamburger plopped onto director’s Veiko Ounpuu’s hot griddle. While some have criticized Ounpuu as derivative, my counter is: So what? When most hip young directors seem to think Scorsese and Tarantino are the bookends of world cinema, it’s nice to see someone with a little ambition in his source material.
The film opens with the kind of snafu that suggests a quirky Aki Kaurismäki or a deadpan Jim Jarmusch, as a car careens over a hill in the midst of a funeral procession. That is, until it turns frighteningly Lynchian when the driver stumbles out of the vehicle a bloody mess. The procession continues on: oblivious to his suffering. That’s The Temptation of St. Tony in a nutshell: a world of existential torment wallpapered in death and ennui. And there’s more to come. “Why does man exist?” the film intones as the bleeding driver careens toward the camera. Ounpuu’s answer to that great metaphysical question seems to be: pain and more pain. Some have described The Temptation of St. Tony as a black comedy, but perhaps only for those who also find slaughterhouses and firing squads chortle-inducing.
As the film progresses, its hero Tony (Taavi Eelmaa), who has a face somewhere between Tex Avery’s Droopy and a matinee-idol heartthrob, stumbles through an increasingly morally destitute landscape. From carrying the cross at his father’s funeral, he transitions to driving his glamorous middle-manager’s sedan through the countryside where he discovers a swamp filled with decapitated hands. Back at home — a glass house set in the middle of a vast, desolate mud bog — Tony watches miserably as a dinner party hosted by Estonia’s “winners” turns into a debauched, drunken melee. When a homeless man presses his nose up against the glass windows during dinner, the guests all hide their faces in shame and fear, unsure of how to deal with the eruption of poverty amidst their gilded surroundings.
Tony’s is an increasingly surreal amble through a world where right and wrong have crumbled as the divisions between the haves and the have-nots have solidified. His marriage is a bust, and very few of the relationships between men and women in the film progress beyond sexual exploitation and self-interest. And if you think being a man in Ounpuu’s joyless world is an ordeal, try putting on a skirt.
The ambiance is doubly hyperbolic: the worst dream you ever had, grounded in the grim truth of Eastern Europe where the floodgates of capitalism have created a grotesque divide between the jewel-dripping rich and the rest of the country still mainlining vodka and waiting for the end.
The tribulations and temptations of 3rd-century Saint Anthony the Great, who renounced all worldly pleasures as he wandered the Egyptian desert, have been immortalized in the artwork of Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dalí, and Ounpuu joins their grim company. His Tony is a similarly stunned and horrified man surrounded by a satanic catalogue of torments: sadism, cannibalism, carnality, torture, you name it. And that’s just the floor show at the Golden Age nightclub.
The Temptation of St. Tony is memorable in its clamminess and noose-tightening sense of entrapment. It’s the kind of cold-sweat movie you can’t wait to get out of, but you hope will never end.
Felicia Feaster is an Atlanta editor and writer who worked, most recently, as the senior editor at The Atlantan. Her writing has appeared in Creative Loafing, Elle, Playboy.com, Atlanta magazine, Art in America, ART PAPERS, Sculpture, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Although her column, Ciné 1.0, may return in the future, we will be breaking format after this month to keep things fresh. Keep checking BURNAWAY this summer for Felicia Feaster’s insightful commentary on topics in art and film!