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A voice in the wilderness
Likely to be one of the most divisive films in this year's London Film Festival, maverick director Abel Ferrara's hallucinatory head-scratcher stars Willem Dafoe as a recluse trying to come to terms with his past, his present and his inner self. Slarek is confused, but strangely compelled by SIBERIA.

Willem Dafoe is one of a handful of actors that I could watch in almost anything they choose to do, and despite a couple of misfires along the way, he also appears to been attracted to interesting and offbeat projects and filmmakers of singular vision. I mean, over the years he’s worked with – deep breath – William Friedkin (To Live and Die in L.A.), Oliver Stone (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July), Martin Scorsese (The Last Temptation of Christ, The Aviator), John Waters (Cry Baby), David Lynch (Wild at Heart), Paul Schrader (Light Sleeper, Autofocus, Adam Resurrected), Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, Affliction, Miral), David Cronenberg (eXistenZ), Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Grand Budapest Hotel), Lars von Trier (Manderlay, Antichrist, Nymphomaniac) and Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse), to name but a few. In a similar but differently angled vein, Abel Ferrara is the sort of maverick outsider filmmaker that I am naturally drawn to, and while not all of his films completely click for me, I’ve yet to see one I that haven’t liked to some degree. A select few – King of New York, Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction amongst them – have even made their way onto my bloated and ever-expanding list of favourite films. In 1998 these two talents worked together for the first time when Dafoe appeared in Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel, and in the years that followed he starred in Go Go Tales (2007), 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011), Pasolini (2014) and Tommaso (2019) for the director, as well as acting alongside him in Loris Gréaud’s Sculpt in 2016. Siberia is their latest collaboration and is likely to divide audiences even more starkly that Ferrara’s films tend to by default, and for many will be the director’s most impenetrable film yet.

Dafoe plays Clint, who in an opening monologue relates a story of his childhood visits to a wintery Canada and the huskies that were used to pull sleds across the snow. Now he’s a reclusive adult and runs a dark and dingy bar located in an isolated corner of some icy snowscape, his only mode of transport being a sled pulled by dogs. At first I assumed he’d chased that childhood memory and moved to a desolate corner of Canada, but when one of his few customers starts speaking in what sounds like Russian it finally dawned on me that the title might be more than just a metaphor. Either way, Clint has clearly been wherever he is for some considerable time and has no problem understanding what his customers say, though he tends to respond in English, which handily allows us to get the gist of their conversations without subtitled assistance.

Willem Dafoe as Clint

We’re only about 10 of 15 minutes into the film (I wasn’t keeping track) when things start taking a peculiar turn. Clint has a violent dream in which he is attack by what I presume are his dogs, a dream whose loud and sudden arrival punctures the quiet of the bar so violently that I almost jumped out of my seat. I know, troubling dreams are hardly new for film characters, but we’re just getting started here. The following day he is visited by an old woman and her very pregnant daughter. We know she is pregnant because she opens her coat to reveal her naked belly and breasts. Clint is initially startled but then drops to his knees in front of the girl and kisses her swollen midriff. Is he the father? It does seem likely. In the next scene the two are shown embracing each other in bed, but the following morning Clint is back on his own and the questions start piling up. Did the girl leave? Is this a memory? A fantasy? A dream? An hallucination? Clint then starts searching the cabin for someone named Mitchell, a hunt that leads him cautiously down into the cellar, where he suddenly finds himself on a clifftop precipice that has no business being there. He takes a tumble and eventually finds his footing and edges his way round into a cave, which is lit from within by what looks like a sunrise, by the light of which he has a conversation with the water-based reflection of a man who closely resembles him and may be his brother. When he returns to the cabin he’s confronted with by, well, I think I’d need a second viewing to accurately describe what awaits him there. One thing I can assure you, it’s not comfortable viewing.

The next morning Clint hitches his dogs up to a sled and heads off into the snow, and from this point on all narrative bets are off. In the blink of an edit he starts slipping between locations and even continents. One minute he’s being pulled along in the snow by his dogs and in the next he and the now untethered animals are making their way across sand dunes or walking through the lush greenery of a forest. During the course of his journey he converses with a woodsman, a philosophising magician and a naked disabled demon, and when he takes shelter in a cave he is confronted by the image of his late father. At one point he is encouraged to dance and does so energetically to Del Shannon’s Runaway, a sequence that is simultaneously both uplifting and oddly unsettling and rather thrillingly disrupts the film’s melancholic tone. For reasons I can’t fully explain, I was reminded of the similarly music-driven tonal shift in David Lynch’s Inland Empire in which a company of strippers suddenly mime to Little Eva’s The Loco-Motion.

The film crawls inside Clint’s troubled head at an early stage and takes up residence there for most of the remaining running time, and interpretations of what unfolds will likely vary from viewer to viewer. In amongst the whirl of fears, regrets, self-analysis and dreamy philosophising, there seems little doubt that Clint is wrestling with actual memories, the most concrete of which sees him revisit a wife and child he presumably abandoned. The reasons for his departure are only hinted at here, but do appear to have impacted on him strongly enough to send him scurrying off into the wilderness. There is a genuinely surrealistic element to this almost broken mirror narrative and the seemingly random shifts of location and situation, one that is faithful to the defining words of artist Max Ernst, who described the structure of surrealist painting as “a linking of two realities that by all appearances have nothing to link them, in a setting that by all appearances does not fit them.”

Clint and his digs find themselves in the desert

Of course, none of this will likely cut much ice with those who are not prepared to go where Ferrara is taking them. Many will regard the film as self-indulgent (which to a degree it is), incoherent (well, sometimes) and pretentious, a word that is so lazily misused in film criticism that the very sight of it tends to make my blood boil. Ferrara is experimenting with form and structure here, but the compositional care with which the sometimes striking imagery is composed, coupled with the logistical problems that filming at such diverse locations must have created, make it seem likely that is a genuine purpose behind his choices, albeit one that may seem opaque on a first viewing. And this was a first viewing, one experienced without pauses or the clarifying re-watching of scenes that disc versions allow. I’m confident that I’ll be revisiting it at a later date, when the shock of the unexpected will have passed and I’ll be better prepared to analyse a work I’ll freely admit that I didn’t fully understand but was nonetheless consistently intrigued by. For me it was akin to being presented with an elaborate and finely crafted puzzle that I could only solve part of on my first attempt but that I was left keen to have a second or third stab at. Maybe I’ll find nothing the second or third time around, and it’s actually possible there’s nothing there to find. What I do feel sure of that this is not a call that can be made on a single viewing alone, and the urge to solve the puzzle is definitely strong in this one.

Italian cinematographer Stefano Falivene’s gorgeous scope compositions and naturalistic lighting (none of the interiors look artificially lit) give the film an arresting surface sheen and strong sense of place, aided by an excellent sound mix and composer Joe Delia’s atmospheric score. But the anchor here is definitely Willem Dafoe, whose weather-beaten features and ability to suggest with a single expressive look what many others feel the need to more loudly emote make Clint a strangely compelling figure and one worth taking the journey with, wherever the twisted mind of Abel Ferrara might take choose to take him. Wherever he travelled and whatever was unfolding around him, I just couldn’t take my eyes off Dafoe for a second.

So after all that, does the film work for me? Well, yes and no. I was repeatedly surprised, sometimes baffled, but was always intrigued and was certainly never bored. As the final credits rolled I had my hand planted firmly on my forehead and my brow slightly furrowed, but I knew even then that a second viewing was on the cards, though when that will happen is down to the whim of distributors. There’s a little part of me that wonders if Ferrara secretly delights in the idea that the film will piss off a sizeable proportion of its potential audience. Yet after reading a few of the more negative comments made about it, I was reminded of a question I heard asked by a wily student when his graduation film was criticised for breaking a number of long-established filmmaking conventions: “If experimental cinema has rules, how can you call it experimental?”
BFI London Film Festival 2020 logo
Siberia poster

Italy | Germany | Greece | Mexico 2020
92 mins
directed by
Abel Ferrara
produced by
Julio Chavezmontes
Marta Donzelli
Philipp Kreuzer
Gregorio Paonessa
Diana Phillips
Jörg Schulze
written by
Abel Ferrara
Christ Zois
Stefano Falivene
Leonardo Daniel Bianchi
Fabio Nunziata
Joe Delia
production design
Renate Schmaderer
Willem Dafoe
Dounia Sichov
Simon McBurney
Cristina Chiriac
Daniel Giménez Cacho
Fabio Pagano
Anna Ferrara

LFF screening date
10 October 2020
review posted
10 October 2020

related review
King of New York

See all of Slarek's reviews