The Temptation of St. Tony Dir. Veiko Õunpuu

[Olive Films; 2010]

Styles: surrealism, dark comedy
Others: Mulholland Drive, Hour of the Wolf

In early Christian lore, the Egyptian monk Anthony traveled to the Saharan desert in search of St. Paul, but instead encountered a host of demons who tormented him physically in order to test his enduring faith. For reasons known only to 4th century masochists, this piece of arcana is commonly referred to as “The Temptation of St. Anthony.” Because of the graphic demon battles and underlying implications of lust and desire, surrealist painters from Hieronymus Bosch to Salvador Dalí have felt compelled to depict this story in painting. Georges Méliès, the magician of early cinema and a pioneer of fantasy filmmaking, also made St. Anthony’s dilemma the subject of one of his early shorts.

In his his contemporary take on the myth, The Temptation of St. Tony, Estonian director Veiko Õunpuu turns the beatified St. Anthony into the more casual Tony (Taavi Eelmaa), mid-level manager of a Tallinn factory. While Tony has all the trappings of post-Soviet success, a series of strange events after the death of his father causes him to question the possibility of a moral path in such a world. On the way home from the funeral, he hits a black dog (always an ominous figure). When he tries to bury the body in the woods, he discovers piles of severed human hands. The police seem disinterested in this discovery, instead focusing their attentions on Nadezhda (Ravshana Kurkova), a pretty girl in their custody. Tony helps Nadezhda escape, and as both she and the mysteriously reincarnated canine continue to appear in his life, his existence takes a turn for the bizarre.

Like any good surrealist, Õunpuu does not waste time in hitting the viewer over the head with symbolism. In the opening shot, Tony carries an over-sized cross as he leads the funeral procession. Ounuu immediately turns this sequence into an absurdist morality play: a car speeds by the mourners only to wildly careen off a cliff, while Tony looks on, wondering whether to help the accident victims or continue with the funeral marchers. Tony chooses the latter, but not out of any sense of filial duty, as we see him sneak out of the funeral to leave early. The very next scene also implies that both the driver and slain passenger were Tony’s friends: as the blood-spattered driver confronts Tony, rather than seeking medical help or emotional support, he wants only to sit in the driver’s seat of Tony’s Bentley. Later, Tony glowers as he wipes a spot of the man’s blood off the white leather seat, which would seem to suggest Tony occupies a morally vacuous space.

This is not entirely the case, however. In a perverse way, Õunpuu stays true to his “source” material: Tony’s overarching faith is not in divine morality but in the materialism of everyday life. The demons that tempt him do not test his submission to God, but rather drive him to question the notion of the good life that he has striven to attain. The most obvious instance of the reversal occurs during the sequence in the church, in which the priest Tony converses with becomes a supernaturally menacing force. The priest would represent the true path in most conventional notions of morality, but in Tony’s world his “rightful path” is to live in a world that purposely devalues humanity. As Tony eventually discovers the source of the severed hands, he finds himself literally reduced to numbers (just as the workers he oversees were reduced to .7% in his company’s budget), by having a dismemberment diagram drawn on his body.

Thus, the shocking finale of the film (surprisingly not the sequence in the severed limb factory) is actually Tony’s reward for staying true to his “God” — the reward he explicitly wonders about in conversing with the priest. Without divulging exactly how this plays out, in Tony’s world, heaven is the ultimate fulfillment of his bodily desire to possess another person, Nadezdha, the object of his desire. Perhaps this is why Ounuu invokes Dante’s opening lines to the Inferno with the film’s epigram: through the seemingly disconnected series of events, there is in fact a logical progression from hell to heaven.

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