Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Veiko Ounpuu, 2009
Starring: Taavi Eelmaa, Ravshana Kurkova, Tiina Tauraite, Sten Ljunggren, Denis Lavant

Phua Tonu kiusamine is an impressive, difficult to classify and difficult to fathom Estonian film, though it is technically a Swedish-Finnish-Estonian co-production. It is Veiko Ounpuu's sophomore directorial effort and was also penned by the award winning director. Tony or Tonu (Taavi Eelmaa) is a middle class, middle age, mid-level manager. He wears a suit, has proper manners and proper morality, drives a nice car that seems to be the center of his existence, and is otherwise utterly boring. Due to a series of comically absurd events, he finds a pile of severed human hands in the forest and everything changes. He inadvertently finds himself questioning life and morality, which leads him to a number of unexpected places.

I saw this wonderful film at the Danger After Dark fest in Philly and left the theater in a complete daze. Did I love it? Did I hate it? How could I get my brain to start functioning again? It's rare for me to not make a snap decision about a film. Usually, as was the case with Antichrist, if I leave the theater thinking about a film for three or four days non-stop, it means that even if I can't distinguish whether or not I like the film, it is probably a successful work of cinema. This morning I woke up pretty sure that The Temptation of St. Tony is a masterpiece, if a somewhat flawed one.

It could loosely be described as a black comedy, but that really doesn't do it justice. There are elements of the surreal and the absurd. The film is beautifully shot and has a definite Tarkovsky influence. Almost more a series of tableaux than a cohesively narrative film, the stark, lovely scenes lead Tony further downward into a spiral of confusion and questioning. In a strange way, it also reminds me of Pasolini's Teorema. Both films openly sneer at bourgeois life and morality, both deal with the difficulty of religious and spiritual searching in a modern, capitalist age, and both have troubling, ambiguous endings.

If I had to pick, I have three favorite things about this film. First, the performances are tremendous. In a lot of ways they are very physically grueling and require a certain amount of stiffness and awkwardness with a layer of roiling emotion underneath. Second, I love a director who's not afraid of stillness. In this way, Ounpuu is like Haneke. He doesn't beat us over the head with soundtrack or dialogue. He gives Tony time to be quiet. My third favorite thing is the incredible range of emotion in the film itself. It goes from moments of the mundane, the absurd, the comic, the pathetic, the depressing, and, most impressively, to some truly creepy and disturbing moments. The ending scenes at the hellish club, Das Goldene Seitaltern (The Golden Age), verge on terrifying. Sten Ljunggren, a Swedish actor using German dialogue, casts a particularly memorable impression.

Supposedly The Temptation of St. Tony will be released on region 1 dvd in January of 2011. I can't wait to see it again. You can keep up with the film at its webpage, which is available both in Estonian and English.
Edit: Here's the DVD!

Side note: When I was preparing to write this review I realized I knew very little about Estonia, which is apparently a magical place. It borders Finland and is similar in language and culture. To me the language sounds a lot like Elvish. The country is full of lakes, borders the Baltic Sea, has a temperate climate, and lots of snow. It is considered multinational. Since the Middle Ages a lot of other European countries have had their hands in Estonian government, namely Rome and Sweden. The country was hit hard by World War II and ranks as the largest percentage of casualties in Europe. It was occupied by Germany and later by the Soviets. Incidentally, Estonia currently takes part in what they call "e-government." Voting for elections is done ON THE INTERNET. The income level is rated high by the EU and the economy is steadily growing. The population is low, supposedly the smallest in the EU. Apparently they are also big on freedom of religion, women in government, freedom of the press, arts, education, and barbecuing in the summer. I'm moving to Estonia. Your lesson is over. See you soon - I mean, head aega!

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