Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ounpuu’s The Temptation of St. Tony

Though captive nations under the Soviet empire, the Baltic states are almost more Scandinavian than Slavic. Indeed, the chilly and austere landscape faced by a troubled Estonian middle-manager deliberately brings to mind the surreal masterworks of Ingmar Bergman. Needless to say, Veiko Õunpuu’s The Temptation of St. Tony (trailer here) is in nowhere near the same class as Bergman’s films, but at least it deserves credit for trying when it opens this Friday in New York.

Tony is having a rough go of it lately. His father died, his wife is cheating on him, his boss forces him to lay-off his entire factory workforce, and he must sit through one of the most pretentious productions of Uncle Vanya ever staged. Yet things only become more disorienting as he enters a bizarre netherworld filled with eccentric characters and lurking menace. Though he might be having difficulty differentiating reality from illusion, it does not necessarily mean the world is not an evil place, out to get him personally.

Unlike Õunpuu’s dingy looking first feature Autumn Ball, Temptation is visually stylish, filmed in striking black-and-white by cinematographer Mart Taniel. Stills of his work here are often suitable for framing. Indeed, the bleakness of the human soul never looked so beautiful. Though this might sound superficial, it carries Temptation a long way. In truth, the film’s stark imagery directly contributes to the success of many scenes, as when Tony’s visit to a church takes a creepy Hour of the Wolf turn.

There are moments of shock and power in Temptation, but it is definitely an intellectual rather than emotional affair. It is a hard film to embrace, not that it wants you too. As Tony, Taavi Eelmaa projects a fair amount of fear and confusion, but for the most part, the actors are essentially props for Õunpuu to toy with. However, Evald Aavik is likely to stay with viewers thanks to his small but memorable turn as the preacher.

Like Bergman’s Wolf, Temptation is a surreal film that flirts with horror movie conventions. In fact, sensitive viewers should be warned to expect a number of grotesque and truly disturbing images. (One really has to wonder what Odetta would have thought of the film’s use of her rendition of “Motherless Child.”)

Intentionally obscure, Temptation does not yield up meaning easily. It exists elusively at the crossroads of absurdity and nihilism. An undeniably artful film, had Temptation been made fifty years ago, people would still be telling us how brilliant it is. However, in the post-modern era, it feels almost nostalgic. Still, once you have seen Temptation, you know you saw a film, emotionally stunted though it might be. It opens this Friday (9/17) in New York at the Cinema Village.