An exploration into the language of dreams.
Clint (Willem Dafoe) runs a shack bar in the snowy tundras of Siberia visited by a native ice fisherman. They talk and bond, but somehow not in the same language. A couple of babushkas join them and Clint is soon caressing the pregnant belly of a young Russian woman as her mother chants in the background. Then he watches a man play a fruit machine, and is attacked by a bear…
Good luck making sense of Siberia, the latest film from writer-director Abel Ferrara (Driller Killer) in his sixth collaboration with Dafoe after the two worked on last year’s Tommaso and the biographical Pasolini (2014). Wildly abstract, Siberia was funded by a Kickstarter campaign and is inspired by analytical psychologist Carl Jung’s The Red Book, an account of Jung’s journeys and experiments in his own subconscious. If audiences look at Siberia as an experiment to accurately depict the human subconscious on film, then perhaps it could be regarded as a success. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good… or enjoyable.
“Your soul is outside of you, and you must claim it.” And so begins Clint’s kaleidoscopic journey into a Jungian nightmare of the subconscious to seemingly achieve some form of enlightenment or absolution. In place of any plot or narrative, there’s a stream of consciousness in which Clint climbs aboard a Husky-led sled and journeys across extreme landscapes (dreamscapes?)—from the Siberian tundra to a Saharan-looking desert—discovering scenes of random violence (including a mass execution), his dead father, and a woman who seems to be his ex-wife. During which he’s facing his demons and past mistakes.
Siberia is at time visually striking, but not in the same way Ferarra’s previous films are, where the graphic violence, sex, and drug-use in Ms.45 (1981) and Driller Killer earned Ferarra a reputation for low-budget and provocative filmmaking. Instead, more abstract images such as a red sun rising over a body of water inside a cave make for some good-looking shots, but with little purpose.
For those who can’t get by without a straightforward narrative—or, for that matter, any narrative—Siberia certainly isn’t worth checking out. Scenes and images melt together with seemingly little relevance to one another as if each one’s being written ahead of the preceding scene just in time. In fact, Ferarra described the development of the script as “starting off on page one and letting your mind take you wherever you go.” Which sure does explain a lot, but not nearly enough to make much sense of anything.
This is where Siberia falls apart. An interesting idea it may be, but before there’s time to decipher what’s just happened we’re flung into the next scene. Perhaps, after multiple viewings, there’s a rewarding experience here, but as with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020), should audiences be expected to watch a film multiple times before they enjoy or grasp at least the basics of it? Maybe so, in some cases… but with Siberia, it’s a typically pretentious arthouse film: stylish but with little substance, and only really worth watching if you’re interested in the ideas behind it.
The film’s only saving graces are the music score by long-time Ferarra collaborator Joe Delia (which is unsettling and underpins the confusion on screen, but also includes a number of juxtaposed scenes involving heavy metal to comical effect), and Willem Dafoe puts in another great performance, throwing himself into this role and cranking up the weirdness as he did in The Lighthouse (2019). His bony weathered face a perfect fit as Abel Ferrara’s muse. And cinematographer Stefano Falivene at least makes Siberia handsome to behold.
Abel Ferrara’s filmography is undoubtedly a divisive one, and Siberia will be no different. After a number of documentaries in the 2000s alongside a couple of features in the 2010s including 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011) and Welcome to New York (2014), Ferarra’s best work are undoubtedly the cult classics of the 1980s and 1990s he’s best known for. Siberia is an audacious and ambitious project, and it may be successful in what it set out to do, but it’s altogether baffling and boring.
ITALY • GERMANY • GREECE • MEXICO | 2020 | 92 MINUTES | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Abel Ferrara.
writers: Abel Ferrara & Christ Zois.
starring: Willem Dafoe, Dounia Sichov, Simon McBurney, Cristina Chiriac & Anna Ferrara.