This review originally appeared in a slightly different form at The Cinematheque.
Surprisingly resonant, this little film from the wilds of Estonia is a sharply focused take on the classic tale of St. Anthony, recalling the work of such past auteurs as Tarkovsky, Buñuel, Bresson and Renoir. The Temptation of St. Tony, directed by Veiko Õunpuu, explores the modern world by showing the strange half-built state of affairs in the former Soviet state: middle-management bureaucrats with bourgeois attitudes traipsing about in the visual poverty of newly built homes on ugly, fauna-less tracts of land—Huxley’s grey squat buildings with a twist. All the while, the film is ensconced inside the world of Hieronymus Bosch, whose “Temptation of St. Anthony” provides the visual starting point.
Shot in crisp black and white (so crisp one could call it black and silver) Õunpuu gives us a tale that is pure Kafka (via Tarkovksy visually and Bunuel spiritually), interspersed with visions of a hellish possibility that twists the film into a nightmare. Our faithful and fateful protag is homebound after a party when he hits and kills a dog. He drags the dog into the woods to hide the evidence and stumbles upon a severed human hand. Upon further inspection, our man finds a pile of dozens and dozens of severed human hands. This is the beginning of the Kafkaesque nightmare, which roller coasters its way through Hell and back and into its inevitably tragic, incessantly twisted finale.
The centerpiece of the film is the Bosch-like Hell that plays itself as some sort of nightclub-cum-cannibalistic whorehouse where our “hero” must save the waifish (read: pretty, but used would-be crack whore) damsel-in-distress he has become enamored with—and since we are throwing in influences, let’s toss in David Lynch right around this point. The place is made up in such a way that we would not be surprised to find the disfigured face of Tom Waits dancing about in some sinister manner—and for a second we almost seem to, though at second glance we find that it’s the French actor Denis Lavant. Whatever the case may be, The Temptation of St. Tony—this strangely sublime nightmare of a movie, in its crisper-than-crisp photography, impossible Kafkaesque storyline, Bosch-inspired visual audacity and Tarkovskyian layerings—is a film you’ll be hard pressed to avert your eyes from, even in the most disturbing of moments.