Berlinale 2020: Abel Ferrara’s ‘Siberia’ Is Pure Cinema

by Redmond Bacon

Unlike many imitators or try-hards, Abel Ferrara is a genuinely brave filmmaker, taking risks that no one else would even think of. His sheer commitment to the form is a miracle. His latest, Siberia, is pure cinema. Untethered from petty concerns of conventional narrative, its dreamlike odyssey across the frontiers of the mind is sure to linger long after the Berlin Film Festival is over. 

Willem Dafoe plays Clint, a man who has always had a fascination with native culture. In an opening monologue, he recounts an expedition beyond the Arctic Circle. As an adult man, Clint has set up a small bar in the absolute snow-drenched middle of nowhere. I think its Siberia, Russia, but one can never be sure of anything with this movie. Alternately bizarre, affecting, funny and perverse, Siberia is something like 8 1/2 crossed with The Grey. 

These domestic scenes are interrupted by strange visions: bear attacks, discussions with his father, war crimes and metal concerts. One cannot say with any certainty if these are projections, memories or a strange mixture of the two. To analyze Siberia in these terms is to lose the point entirely. It really feels like the entire film is just an extended dream sequence; a bit like the 20-minute dream sequence in The Sopranos episode “The Test Dream” without any of the context. 

Plot is minimal. Dafoe takes a husky-drawn trip across the snowy-desert, but due to the dreamlike construction of the film, he doesn’t really seem to get from A to B. Rather he zigzags around his stream-of-consciousness, ostensibly searching for a master of the black arts, but also finding time to tackle major events from his entire life. 

This is not just a literal Siberia, but a Siberia of the mind; a place to both get away from the realities of the world and to clarify that which is truly important. It is not even the only location in the movie, Ferrara transporting us to the Sahara, office rooms, and even bucolic maypole dancing. With a film like this, you need an actor like Willem Dafoe; a man whose very face seems to tell a thousand stories. Dafoe totally commits to the role, so we can believe in this tale even when it makes no sense. It’s worth it. Near the end of the film, there is a musical moment that (not to sound hyperbolic) feels instantly iconic, evoking the end of Beau Travail in the way it seems to gloriously realize the film’s pent-up, brooding energy. 

Your mileage from the film will definitely vary with whether you allow its hypnotic rhythms to take you over. Analysis may be useless. Clint not only has father issues, but he also has women and son issues too, making it impossible to track his problems to one clear, defining moment. Siberia shows that life is infinitely complex and multi-varied, caught in a perpetual struggle between good and evil, happiness and depression, war and peace. We just have to remember to dance every now and then. 

Siberia screens at the 70th Berlin Film Festival, which runs February 20th, 2020 – March 1, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.

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