For those who like their festival films as bonkers and experimental as possible; well this one’s definitely for you. World premiering in competition at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year, Siberia marks Abel Ferrara’s sixth collaboration with Willem Dafoe, following last year’s addiction drama Tommaso. Billed as a search for his soul at the ends of the universe, Dafoe brings his signature intensity to proceedings, but even he can’t save this nonsensical and surreal journey into the human subconscious.
Siberia centres on Clint (Dafoe), an American who’s abandoned his former life and escaped to a cabin in the harsh, snowy woodlands. Working in the remote local mountainside bar, he embarks on a dog-sled journey to a nearby cave in order to delve into his dreams and memories. Confronting his past regrets and mistakes, he attempts to piece them together in order to understand his life.
Ferrara cleverly lulls you into thinking this is a character study, as Dafoe’s bartender attempts to interact with different patrons who find themselves stumbling into the remote mountainside bar. In what could have been a potentially compelling slow-burn mystery, unearthing why Clint’s exiled himself into the remote Siberian landscape, the narrative takes a complete left turn. After fighting off a killer stuffed bear (yes really), the bartender sets out on a metaphysical, spiritual or literal (it is unclear which) dog-sled journey in search for his soul. What follows is a number of abstract scenes filled with bewildering monologues and quarrels (between both himself and past lovers and relatives) incoherently woven together in a fever dream of a film.
As Clint meanders through varying violent, disturbing and sexually graphic memories, it becomes harder to see how they truly connect and what the real message actually is. In one instance, he travels from the cave where he’s arguing with a seemingly evil version of himself (complete with pirate eyepatch) to a distressing scene at a Russian death camp. Whether the dreams are some sort of metaphor for repressed emotions such as isolation, depression or fear, Ferrara doesn’t attempt to spell it out for audiences, subsequently leaving the narrative wildly open for interpretation. In one standout scene, Clint talks through the failings of a relationship with an ex lover, perhaps attempting to gain some sort of closure. However this tender moment descends once again into an uncomfortably intimate sex scene (a running theme), with Dafoe then dancing round a maypole to Del Shannon’s “Runaway”. As much as I enjoy Dafoe going off into the deep end, fighting off killer bears and dancing, it’s hard to wonder what the real point of the film actually is.
Thankfully there’s a number of absolutely beautiful and truly atmospheric sweeping vistas included, with Cinematographer Stefano Falivene using the landscape’s wilderness to full potential. The vivid use of colour, particularly within the wildly varying contrast of habitats – the desert and roaring fire in the cave with the bleak, snowy tundras, makes for an immersive watch. Defeo is also on top eccentric form following his brilliant turn in psychodrama The Lighthouse; with Ferrara appearing to give the actor free reign in the wildly differing scenes. As Clint wrestles with different evil versions of himself, Defeo wonderfully channels his Green Goblin persona in one of the more enjoyable exchanges.
With this hallucinogenic induced spiritual trip, Ferrara has managed to create one of the most inaccessible and baffling films of this year’s London film festival. Although Dafoe appears to be having a blast with his manic performance, I have a feeling the inexplicable narrative will leave a lot of viewers left cold and confused. If you were looking for an emotional dog-sled journey with the actor, I’d suggest checking out Togo on Disney+ instead…