Temptation of St. Tony, The

By Jeff Farr

Olive Films

Veiko Ounpuu’s “The Temptation of St. Tony” begins with a quote from Dante’s “Inferno”: “Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest of dark, / For the straightforward path had been lost.” The “St. Tony” of the film’s title is a confused factory manager (Taavie Eelmaa) very much lost in the forest. He is searching for meaning in what Ounpuu posits is a meaningless world.
The film begins with a perplexing sequence in which Tony attends his father’s funeral. Holding a large cross, Tony leads the funeral party on a march along the beach. A car suddenly whizzes by them, crashing into the ocean. But Tony and the funeralgoers simply ignore it. Ounpuu carries through with this absurd tone throughout the film, piling on slightly bizarre vignette upon slightly bizarre vignette until it becomes clear that Tony does not have a firm footing in reality.
There are elements of black humor throughout “The Temptation of St. Tony,” but they are outweighed by the grimness of the material. Ounpuu’s film methodically works its way toward its ultimate theme: cannibalism, in this case graphically depicted. The moral of the story? Humanity is eating itself up these days.
Post-funeral, Tony’s journey toward cannibalism continues when he hits a dog on the drive home. He stops the car, pulls the dog’s body into a bog, and discovers there a horrendous dumping ground for severed human hands.
One strong influence on Ounpuu is the work of David Lynch. Tony’s disturbing find, for instance, is quite reminiscent of Kyle MacLachlan’s discovery of a severed human ear early in “Blue Velvet” (1986).
However, while “Blue Velvet” is essentially a coming-of-age story, Ounpuu’s film is solidly in the vein of the midlife-crisis story. Tony is not learning dark things about the world for the first time—he is a grown man who is finding that the assumptions upon which he has built his existence are faulty at best.
Tony next rushes into a countryside police station (a very Lynchian police station at that, complete with a dwarf cop) to report the human carnage he has stumbled upon. But instead of any warm welcome, he winds up facing a brutal, homoerotic interrogation—until the police become distracted by the apprehension of a wanted young woman, Nadeshda (Ravshana Kurkova).
Tony and Nadeshda wind up escaping together, and she becomes his love interest for the rest of the film. His pursuit of her will lead him further and further down into that dangerous psychic space where the center cannot hold.
Before Tony completely loses it, though, we are introduced to his dreary everyday life. His home life is intensely dysfunctional—his second wife wildly unstable and apparently cheating on him—and his work situation is no better. He is ordered to fire all his factory workers, one of whom turns out to be the father of his beloved Nadeshda.
Attending a postmodern performance of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” and paying a visit to a priest offer Tony no solace. “I don’t see a glimpse of hope,” the priest tells him matter-of-factly, neatly summing up this film’s ethos.
From that point, things pretty much go haywire. When Tony witnesses Nadeshda being kidnapped, he follows her trail to the Golden Age, a depraved private club where the principal entertainment is cannibalism-by-vote: yes, a show of clubgoers’ hands decides which pretty young lady they get to eat next.
The club’s gleefully perverse master of ceremonies is none other than Denis Lavant of “Beau Travail” (1999) fame, who injects the film with some much-needed spark. The decadent Golden Age set piece is the film’s most elaborate and best, but it fails to take us anywhere Lynch and others have not taken us many times before.
When Tony tries to rescue his lady from the Golden Age, he winds up a prisoner himself. In the film’s most disturbing bit, Tony awakens to find his limbs marked for dismemberment and an eager butcher fast approaching with a chain saw.
Somehow, though, everything in “The Temptation of St. Tony” is not nearly as disturbing as it should be. Ounpuu’s film, which made its US debut at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is too derivative of the classic cult films of the 1970s and 1980s, especially Lynch’s career, to make much of a lasting impression.
It is a shame because there is much to be admired in the filmmaking. In particular, “The Temptation of St. Tony” has a great look to it. Shot by cinematographer Mart Taniel in gorgeous black and white, the mise-en-scene is carefully and cleverly composed in every scene.
Eelmaa gives a heroic performance as Tony, toward the end of the film often running nearly naked through fields of snow. But this highly physical role lacks personality, as written by Ounpuu, which is unfortunate for Eelmaa and the viewer. Tony is such a zombified nonentity that is difficult to relate to his spiritual struggle or to care much what fate befalls him. The same goes for Kurkova’s character. Put these two together, and the anti-chemistry is hard to get past.
We wind up feeling as lost in the forest as these poor souls. Maybe that is Ounpuu’s point, but “The Temptation of St. Tony” feels overly tired.
Tony – Taavi Eelmaa
Nadeshda – Ravshana Kurkova
Tony’s wife – Tiina Tauraite
Herr Meister – Sten Ljunggren
Count Korzybski – Denis Lavant
Kleine Willy – Rain Tolk
Nadezhda’s father – Valeri Fjodorov
Priest – Evald Aavik
An Olive Films release.
Produced by Katrin Kissa.
Written and Directed by Veiko Ounpuu.
Director of Photography, Mart Taniel.
Music, Ulo Krigul.
Sound Design, Janne Laine.
Running time: 110 Minutes.