Berlinale 2020 review: Siberia (Abel Ferrara)

After a number of more narrative features recently, the always divisive director Abel Ferrara returns with a more radical and associative form of cinema with Siberia, miraculously a competition entry here at the Berlinale. A film that is conjured up from dreams, memories, and a wild imagination eschews easy explanations to offer up a metaphysical journey through the soul of a man who is broken and in need of inner peace.

Ferrara’s acting alter ego Willem Dafoe takes center stage once again as Clint, a man who lives at the edge of the world in a remote mountain cabin, where he runs a small cafe of sorts. The few customers that steer their dogsled his way don’t speak his language, nor does he speak theirs, but that’s fine. He wants to be left alone as much as possible anyway. Even so, he resolves to leave his remote safety behind to set out on a personal journey beyond the edge. This journey becomes a mystical one, a spiritual trip through images of his past life, his past lovers, his past traumas. He wrestles with an inner darkness but emerges into the light, where he finally finds the peace of mind that allows him to return to his humble abode at the edge of the world. Has the darkness truly fallen from his soul though?

Those trying to find concrete explanations in Siberia will come up short. The film does not lend itself to intellectual interpretions, even if the previous paragraph may have seemed like an attempt. Or rather: any attempt is valid and right, probably. Siberia is a film that should move you spiritually and viscerally like a Hieronymus Bosch painting. As I was watching it, I felt Dafoe’s character to be in some sort of purgatory, going through an array of scenes from his life. Most of what he encounters early on is rather gruesome, yet he also meets his father (again played by Dafoe), of whom he has warm memories. An opening monologue has Clint fondly remembering the trips he used to make with his father to the Canadian wilderness, a place he now seems to be calling his home.

At some point though the icy world of Northern Canada makes way for the desert, as Dafoe and his faithful canine companions (a set of truly beautiful huskies) walk from the frozen tundra into a palm-clad oasis. He encounters more people he doesn’t understand verbally, but who he connects to on a spiritual level. Light begins to shine through in the imagery and the cinematography, and Clint undergoes a catharsis, sexually and spiritually, in the log cabin of someone he holds for a master of the dark arts. As he returns to his frozen world his journey takes a darker turn again, which suggests he is on the reverse of a journey through the underworld, as a negative of Odysseus. Or perhaps we can see a glimpse of Ferrara in Clint (just like in his previous film Tommaso); the presence of both Ferrara’s wife (Cristina Chiriac) and their young daughter (Anna Ferrara) in the film might hint at such.

From a technical point of view Ferrara’s films have always had a bit of a ragged quality, but this fits Siberia perfectly because it is constructed of scenes that are like shards of glass. Stefano Falivene’s cinematography and the oppressive sound design by Neil Benezra give Dafoe’s odyssey the jagged edge it needs, heightening the viscerality of the film. At times the cinema of Philippe Grandrieux comes to mind, another one of those filmmakers that can shake you to your core. With Siberia, Abel Ferrara does just that. It is not a question of getting the film, but if the film gets you.

Photo copyright: Vivo Film, Maze Pictures, Piano