Abel Ferrara and frequent collaborator Willem Dafoe join forces in Siberia, a film that explores experimental cinema to its fullest.
Clint (Willem Dafoe) lives in a snowed-in wooded area of Siberia. Tending to his small desolate bar. Isolated from the rest of mankind until they visit him he gets by with the company of his huskies and the mundane tasks that fill up his day. Despite this, hallucinations haunt him at every turn.
At the beginning of Siberia, we are presented with a pretty straight narrative (for Ferrara) into Clint and his backstory. Clint details a story and you settle in. We even have some fractured backstory shown in glimpses, as if we are not yet deserving of the full picture just yet. This allows us to slightly understand Clint, just enough as we can understand a stranger. We have the bare basic knowledge about him and even his new life is effectively a mystery to us as well. Is the pregnant woman his partner or someone who he impregnated? The bare minimum is given to the audience to help us piece together the narrative with, yet Siberia remains thoroughly fascinated. This broken narrative somehow works.
Ferrara purposely tries to put the audience in Clint’s shoes by having characters speak to him in a non-English language and to provide us with no subtitles as to ascertain to what they said to him. We are detached from this newer world that Clint finds himself in. While it is a brilliant touch to show us this angle, it is a tad frustrating. We want to learn more about what is going on, what do these people think of him? What are they saying? Ferrara has no time or patience to allow us into this and you will either fall into one of two camps, of loving this or being utterly annoyed by it. This small detail is Ferrara at his free from cinema if frustratingly best.
For all of that talk of a broken narrative, nothing comes close to when Clint and his huskies go off on their journey. Siberia becomes a lucid exploration into the male psyche in dream form. Ferrara confirms this in interviews stating that he wanted to see if we can capture the essence of a dream on film. There is no doubt that if that was his intention, then he has come as close to anyone to achieve it.
Truthfully Siberia is, as expected from the title a cold, uncompromising and isolating film. Little joy is found here and we are kept at arm’s length throughout, but that is very much the point. To feel the utter fruitlessness of trying to escape when the memories of actions never fully leave us no matter how far we distance ourselves from them like Clint has tried to do. Siberia could be seen as trying to inform the audience that by trying to run away and hide from your fear, grief or actions like Clint has, that we should face them and return to the world, for hiding will only lead you further down the cave of desolation.
Dafoe has been Ferrara’s on-screen extension for a number of their collaborations and none will be as despondent as this performance. Darkness surrounds Clint and Dafoe does not let the audience forget this, his haunted face conveying pain and fear continually. Dafoe portrays his character as someone who isn’t fully present with us. Wherever he abandoned and ran from holds his soul, he is a shell of what we figure he used to be, his feral actions (an incredible dancing scene in the film for example) exhibit this nature of trying to release himself.
Dafoe of course gives everything to the role and powers Siberia through scenes that really shouldn’t work. Dafoe’s physicality is called on here continually due to the lack of dialogue presented. His movements are at times desperate, yet we feel empathy for him as Clint. It is a tour de force and an important anchor for the audience to cling to during the exquisitely disconcerting visuals.
Ferrara could be pointing the audience in a multitude of directions with the concept and execution of his picture. Is he showing the true frailties of man? Showing how we fear death, want the emotional and physical connection of sex, but nothing beyond it and it is in our nature to be insecure? There could even be Jungian theories presented here? Do we fully understand oneself when we understand our self-consciousness?
A lot of questions seem to be thrown at the screen in beautifully framed shots, but there are no answers. Ferrara perhaps focuses more on his personal life in Siberia than expected, having gone into sobriety and his discussions on the matter. It seems as if he is exploring the idea of redemption and the possibilities of if it is or isn’t possible. Experimental as Siberia is, it is an astonishingly heavy and humanist film.
Siberia is a film to be experienced in this unique piece of cinema from auteur Abel Ferrara. Few are as bold as Ferrara to attempt a film like this. This is not a standard feature film. It is an expression of art and a fascinating one at that.
To view more of our reviews as we cover the London Film Festival 2020, please have a gander below!