'Temptation of St. Tony' Full of Alluring Confusion

Directed by: Veiko Õunpuu, Runtime: 110 minutes

The line that separates sincere cinematic interpretation and "over-thinking" is thin, but at least a few contemporary filmmakers still have the audacity to challenge its audience to gets their hands dirty with abstract art. Estonian import The Temptation of St. Tony does just that by connecting lucid surrealist images into a strangely humorous parable, yet it's unclear in what it wants to say on a deeper level. Obviously influenced by a collision of classic and modern visual lyricism, director Veiko Õunpuu shapes an evocative setting for a successful-yet-insignificant man to question his worldly merit and moral convictions, all starkly photographed in crisp, disquieting black-and-white. While the dark underlying humor eases the bizarreness, at least a bit, the lack of a cohesive point contorts the images seared on-screen into an onslaught of obscure stabs at metaphorical expression.

Tony's a middle-level factory manager who, if his car and fancy home are any indication, is successful at what he does. He seems disconnected from the world, however, heightened by his state of confusion in the time following his father's funeral. Aside from that, The Temptation of St. Tony doesn't really latch onto a plot with a destination, only reveling in the contemplations that circle his "temptations"; events ripple off of the decisions he makes about the state of his factory, the daughter to one of his older co-workers, and a dog he hits while driving. Each stop in his outlandish connection of scenarios disjointedly bounces off the other, which creates stretches of material -- separated into six chapters, complete with title cards -- that delve into either droll oddity or macabre surrealism. In effect, there's only the nature of these lucid visions that lackadaisically double-back to the central purpose.

The Temptation of St. Tony directly relies on intense mood and sensation, the unsettling stir that Veiko Õunpuu frames in his contemplative scenes. He unmistakably pulls influence from David Lynch -- one scene mixes overt influence to Eraserhead and Mulholland Dr. simultaneously -- and the works of Luis Buñuel (The Exterminating Angel) and Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal) in his figurative machinations, shaping leaden surreal humor and religious imagery within wild circumstances involving severed hands, chainsaws, a smoke-riddled nightclub and an ice-skating rink, among others. His composition, aided exponentially by cinematographer Mart Taniel's careful eye, never lets the tempo approach inane comedy, instead only letting these flirtations with very faint humor peek from the austere cloud. Each of Tony's trials intends to provoke thought and response above all else, wholly pivoting on individual interpretations of vigorous, cryptic ciphers.

Problem is, very little of The Temptation of St. Tony make articulate sense, and that's coming from an admirer of its highbrow influences. Each of the six chapters thrusts challenging imagery in the eyes of the viewer, from consuming bloody organs to the slow, steady crawl of a camera along a heavily-textured wall, and it gets mental gears moving with their insistent rationale. But when Veiko Õunpuu progresses between sequences, he neglects to give the symbolism any fibers of accessibly cohesive material, which rears the deeply-rooted content back from full comprehension. He concocts undeniably sharp beauty and focus within the mysteriousness, entrancing even, but the images fall flat upon examination of their big-picture implications. That level of somewhat unrewarding obscurity becomes frustrating when contemplation is the central reason for the film's being, no matter how expressively effective it can be.

Bearing that in mind, Veiko Õunpuu's skill as a visual raconteur still inspires a craving to comprehend its depths -- a profound craving even -- which makes The Temptation of St. Tony an oddly magnetic cinematic experience. Taavi Eelmaa commands the screen as Tony, with his deep eyes darting blank stares to the minutiae around him in a fit of confusion not unlike our own, giving the right blank-slate appearance for a man who's processing his inherent worth. He weaves through the house-'o-horrors of these peculiar visions with entrancing restraint, slowly allowing his disposition to change as he grows more weathered to the events that unfold, while Eelmaa's performance becomes the connective tissue between these almost vignette-like snippets. Tony's reactions to the swath of sterile bedlam unfolding before his eyes say plenty, even when the film itself can't articulate its own absurdity. If that's Veiko Õunpuu's intent, then he succeeded.

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