Estonia’s foreign picture Oscar entry, The Temptation of St Tony is a darkly absurd and ingeniously funny riff on Dante Alighieri’s Inferno and the martyrdom of St. Anthony of Antioch as depicted by Hieronymous Bosch (the swamp where Tony finds the dismembered hands and the dog he finds are from Bosch's Hermit Saints Triptych, as well as the tempting allure of Ravshana Kurkova's Nadezhda). Recalling the work of Aki Kaurismaki and Roy Andersson with its deadpan sight gags, and David Lynch (particularly Inland Empire, 2006) and Federico Fellini in its dream logic narrative and descent into darkness, it’s a film split into seven sections (the deadly sins? Circles of hell?) which nod to both Kafka (the early interrogation scenes at the police station are straight out of The Trial) and Goethe’s Faust. Brimming with religious imagery and allusion, it’s heavy on the Catholicism from the opening processional (interrupted by a car flying into the sea) and the following wake, framed like Da Vinci’s Last Supper, with Taavi Eelmaa’s eponymous Tony variously Dante’s Everyman and Christ figure as we follow him down the rabbit hole of his blackly existential mid-life crisis.
“So, you’re the one who found multiple human hands in the forest?”
Shot in grainy black and white and with an atonal and menacing sound design reminiscent of Lynch’s Eraserhead (1976), director Veiko Õunpuu (Sügisball, 2007) offers wonderfully absurd juxtapositions within the frame, a woman on a building site in full evening dress, a police chief undressing and spooning his suspect during an interrogation and a performance of Uncle Vanya in which the titular character is dressed as a bumblebee (“A good piece. It made one think.”). It’s consistently unpredictable filmmaking, full of often startlingly funny and beautiful images and ideas that skewer bureaucracy and business, acting and theatre, middle class pretensions and affected pseudo-liberalism, religious ideals and our relationships to each other and our pets.
It’s also unlikely to get anywhere near the Oscar shortlist, criminally without a UK distributor attached, I hope this isn’t a film that just disappears after its Festival screenings. The Temptation of St Tony is a film that, whilst admittedly sounding heavy-going on paper, is shot with such wit and imagination that both its anarchic sense of humour and nightmarish vision provide ample reward for a great London Film Festival discovery.
The Temptation Of St. Tony (Püha Tõnu Kiusamine) – 2009 – Estonia, Sweden, Finland – 114 mins – Dir : Veiko Õunpuu
Screening as part of the Cinema Europa strand at the London Film Festival on Saturday 16th & Sunday 17th Otober. Tickets available at www.bfi.org.uk/lff