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oblivion [Film Festival 12.24.09] Estonia movie review drama

Year: 2009
Directors: Veiko Õunpuu
Writers: Veiko Õunpuu
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: oblivion
Rating: 8 out of 10

"Traversing the Depths of Benevolence"

Strange, deliberate, cerebral, perplexing, brilliant…any of these words could be used to describe The Temptation of St. Tony. Written and directed by Veiko Õunpuu, the award winning Estonian mastermind behind 2007’s Sugisball, this film is a beautifully shot, highly allegorical piece of storytelling that dauntlessly explores the value of goodness and what it means to be good. It is an effort rich with metaphor and artistry that solidifies Ounpuu’s reputation as a visionary director capable of conveying a story that is uncompromising in its piercing gaze into human nature.

The story is, perhaps, loosely based upon the art of Hieronymus Bosch and the writing of Flaubert, from which the movie takes its name (though it modernizes Anthony to Tony). Furthering its link to religious narratives, it opens with a framing quote from Dante’s Inferno—“Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark.” However, like with any good art—and true to the art that may have inspired this film—interpretation is subjective. Ounpuu preserves that notion by heavily relying on symbolism and allegory to point the way, but he never quite clubs you over the head by explicitly stating the intention of his metaphors and conceits. What we do know is that our protagonist, Tony, is a midlevel manager who is at odds with his life amid materialistic and haughty socialites, and his adulterous wife. He seems to clash with those around him by being concerned with doing the right thing. When his boss tells him to lay off all the factory workers, Tony hesitates and ends up interested in the daughter of one of the workers. His interest in her fatefully leads to an encounter with the dark underbelly of society and its mysterious ringleaders, who tempt him to embrace power and turn away from compassion. However, this is a skeleton of a much more intricate narrative.

Among the many perplexing events that take place, there are sequences that seem to quite clearly be Tony’s dreams, but that, later on, seem to manifest as reality. As Tony journeys on, he and the story get less grounded in certainty and more bound by symbolism and metaphor. Some of this is clear, such as Tony living in a “glass” house amid a desolate landscape, or a painting on the wall of the bodhisattva of compassion, but others are much less clear, such as a black dog, severed human hands, or the creepy floating woman that seems to be inhabiting Tony’s dreams. However, none of this is arbitrary or weird for the sake of being weird. Instead, it all seems deliberate and reliant on the notion that an understanding of the symbols and metaphors would lead to an even greater appreciation of the story and the film.

On a thematic level, Tony is seen as a good person by the people who surround him and take advantage of his goodness. But, the question is if Tony really is a good man, or if he is just good compared to the selfishness and oblivious depravity of everyone else. In the beginning, Tony seems incredibly materialistic and desensitized, though this begins to change with a fateful discovery in the woods on his way home from his father’s wake (hence Dante’s dark forest). However, Tony often hesitates to do the right thing and frequently does considerably less than one might expect of a truly good person. For my own interpretation, and not having read a synopsis of the film, I felt that this first “half” of the movie was a critique on the need for morality among capitalism, materialism, and greed, and that Tony’ struggle in the movie would be one of finding his own way to balance morality and success amid a world that does not welcome or encourage altruism or compassion.
That all abruptly changed midway through the movie. In a haunting scene, Tony clearly meets something not of this world while in a church so unkempt that the crucifix has fallen to the ground (perhaps one of the most clear symbolic signposts in the film). Here the story shifts and gets strange, deep, unsettling, and unforgettable. You see, Ounpuu is simply too visionary and devoted as a storyteller to stop with the idea that goodness is needed, or may or may not have value in the world. That would be fine in your run-of-the-mill Hollywood production. Instead, the second “half” of this film boldly plunges into an existential examination of how or why a person can even be good—what motivations, what purpose, would drive someone to be good; what hope could one have…what hope must one have, and cling to, in order to be good (hence the religious turn)? Moreover, are those things as equally ignored and shunned as being good, in itself, seems to be? It is as Tony struggles with these questions that the metaphorical and allegorical weaving become so thick, and the story so supernatural and fraught with alienation, that it becomes deeply artistic, cerebral, and possibly inaccessible in its need for interpretation. It is also, however, revealing of the false sense of security that is taken for granted in the first part of the film, and of the overall nature of the story itself.

On the level of technique, this film is flawless. The black-and-white style gives the story a classic touch while serving a thematic role, and even serves to enhance the alienation and feeling of impending evil. The cinematography, overseen by Mart Taniel, continues the brilliance seen in Sugisball, and contains one of the best sequences I have ever had the privilege to lay eyes upon—when Tony goes to the church and we are shown a slow panning shot of its partly ruined, partly new exterior, like a blend of the old world with the new, until it settles down onto Tony who seems to be outlined with wings (this is the opening shot to the turning point of the movie). Also worthy of particular mention is the music, which often enhances the feelings of alienation and weirdness by being deliberately out of place, or humorous when things are serious. All other aspects of the film, including acting, are quite solid and enhance the centerpieces of cinematography and storytelling. Other than accessibility, the only issue is in its slow pace, though this feels essential to the type, and depth, of the story.

On the surface, The Temptation of St. Tony is a well-crafted visual maze that is both evasive and stunning. It can seem convoluted, overly strange, or even purposefully eccentric. On a deeper level, it is an ambitious and deliberate effort to tell its audience a compelling and complex story that is important to everyone—the power, value, need, and difficulty of being good. It is, quite frankly, a film for those of us who like to think about, reflect upon, and digest what we see, and maybe even go back for more. Though probably not meant for mass audiences, the film and the story, like the brilliance of Veiko Õunpuu and Mart Taniel, should not, perhaps must not, be ignored.

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Anonymous (12 years ago) Reply

Just screened this film at Sundance. Yes, it is inaccessible. The issues about good and evil have been better expressed in other films. The plot, if you believe the film indeed has one, is unclear and open to the projection of the viewer. Too long, and too ambiguous, many audience members walked out of the film mid-way when a fortuitous, false fire alarm went off. This film would screen better if it was re-cut shorter. This is truly one of the most bizarre films I've seen.


Anonymous (12 years ago) Reply

I saw the film in Sundance. It completely shook me - I've never seen anything like this. Just perfect. You can't stick to the plot issue because the film is built up differently . You just have to go with the flow and you get something that no films nowadays can give you any more. I'm so happy that I happened to be there.


Anonymous (12 years ago) Reply

I just saw the film at Sundance. One of the most beautiful, strange, moving pieces I've ever experienced. I appreciate their departure from generic boy-meets-girl storytelling that has taken over film today. See it if you can, and be ready to be transported somewhere else entirely.

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