'Siberia': Film Review | Berlin 2020

Courtesy of Vivo Film/Maze Pictures/Piano
Provocative as always and largely perplexing.

A loner played by Willem Dafoe looks back over his life and struggles to make sense of it in Abel Ferrara’s existential journey, bowing in Berlin competition.

Willem Dafoe’s character Clint is not going to be the only one struggling to find meaning in Siberia, the latest rumination on life from agent provocateur Abel Ferrara. Not only does the screenplay, which Ferrara wrote with Christ Zois, seem like a highly personal exploration of the director’s own psyche, but it is peppered with dreamlike/drug-like encounters with pregnant women, naked dwarves, shamans and magicians who pop out of nowhere, are questioned and disappear a few minutes later.  

Though unmentioned, it is important to know that the film is inspired by self-understanding techniques pioneered by Swiss psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung in his private diary The Red Book, in which he reconsidered his personal and professional direction in the dark years following his break with Sigmund Freud. Jung would evoke a fantasy in his mind and enter into it as if he were onstage. It was a period when he felt “menaced by a psychosis,” and while Ferrara’s film seems too lucid and carefully constructed to suggest any madness on the auteur's part, there is an argument to be made that the Dafoe character is going through too many hallucinations for his own mental health.

It's interesting up to a point, and Ferrara fans who take the trouble to research the pic’s origins (who may be the same people who funded the film on Kickstarter) will get the most out of it, perhaps along with open-minded younger viewers. Unprepared audiences are likely to remain puzzled or angry at being excluded from Clint’s dreamlike world. Yet Dafoe remains a stalwart presence — it’s his fifth time playing the filmmaker’s alter ego — who provides an anchor in the shifting narrative sands and a reassurance that the story is not going to drown in what Jung called the “mythopoeic imagination.”

In a snowy Arctic wilderness, Clint offers a rambling voiceover (it sounds like the beginning of a short story) about a little boy who first went to Canada with his dad and lived with him on a remote lake. When we finally see Clint, he’s a grown man living in a spacious wooden cabin, where he scrounges a living trading goods and selling liquor to his neighbors, like a local Inuit (Laurentio Arnatsiaq) and a woodsman hooked on his slot machine.

Clint’s first fantasy begins with the arrival of two Russian women by dogsled. One is old and doddering, the other young and beautiful. While the elderly lady drinks rum, the young one (Cristina Chiriac) opens her coat to reveal nothing underneath except her swollen breasts and a huge belly soon to give birth — and offers herself to her host with a smile.

In the next scene, Clint is alone in the cabin. He hears a noise in the cellar and while descending the stairs, he falls off a rocky cliff, where he meets his doppelganger and has a dialogue. This might be his inner, nastier self, who angrily criticizes his life choices while Clint reasonably defends them. Their discussion is punctuated with flashes of extreme violence and horror — naked men shot in a death camp and incinerated — as though Clint’s personal visions were part of a much larger social malaise. Again, this interpretation depends on how Jung related his own visionary experiences to World War I; in the pic, these shock bites are more likely to mystify audiences.

Not that anything in this quicksilver film is easy to get a handle on, apart from an exciting trip Clint makes on his own dogsled pulled by five delightful huskies. Reappearing in scene after scene, the blue-eyed dogs provide a grounding reality for several more fantasies. When Clint holes up in a cave and a naked woman dwarf appears in a wheelchair, the animals’ wide-eyed stare of perplexity closely mirrors the viewer’s and gets a laugh of recognition. They are only bested by a talking fish who appears later in the story.

By this point, it’s pretty clear that the hero is riding the dogsled of memory, on an existential journey of self-discovery. In addition to grotesqueries like a visit to a desert oasis with his huskies (Mexico is a co-producer), he conjures up several family members. His doctor-father appears out of his childhood and they have a surreal chat; later, his aged mother climbs on top of him on a table. His unforgiving ex-wife (Dounia Sichov) accuses him of cruelty. Not long after that unpleasant encounter comes a sexual fantasy of making love to a string of young women.

In the end, there is a method in all this madness, suggested by Dafoe’s calm face and reassuring voice as Clint confronts his most emotionally charged memories with courage and curiosity. The professional look of the tech work is another guarantee that this isn’t a string of palaver. Italian DP Stefano Falivene gives unfamiliar natural landscapes through a feeling of magical realism, while Joe Delia’s music, ranging from metaphysical to pop, provides an ironic counterpart to the fantasies.

Production companies: Vivo Film, Rai Cinema, Maze Pictures, Piano
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Dounia Sichov, Simon McBurney, Cristina Chiriac, Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Phil Neilson, Fabio Pagano, Anna Ferrara, Laurentio Arnatsiaq
Director: Abel Ferrara
Screenwriters: Abel Ferrara, Christ Zois
Producers: Marta Donzelli, Gregorio Paonessa, Philipp Kreuzer, Jorg Schulze, Julio Chavezmontes, Diana Phillips
Director of photography: Stefano Falivene
Production designer: Renate Schmaderer
Costume designer: Brenda Gomez
Editors: Fabio Nunziata, Leonardo D. Bianchi
Music: Joe Delia
Casting director: Giulio Donato
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (competition)
World sales: The Match Factory

92 minutes