Less than a year after premiering “Tommaso” at Cannes — maybe the most grounded of movies that renegade auteur Abel Ferrara has made with long-time muse Willem Dafoe — the Bronxiest of filmmakers pivots in the exact opposite direction for a mythopoetic head-trip that tries to cross the endless tundra between Jack London and Carl Jung, only to eat itself alive as soon as soon as it gets lost. Set at the snowy end of the universe (and inspired by one of the latter writer’s manuscripts), “Siberia” is, in essence, a baffling attempt to project the human subconscious on screen.
“I want to see if we can really film dreams,” Ferrara has said of his ambitions for the project. “Our fears, our regrets, our nostalgia.” Putting aside the hundreds of other films that have previously tried to accomplish the same or similar (to varying degrees of success), the evidence here would suggest that we cannot. Then again, if Ferrara’s nostalgia involves lots of sex, his regrets include attending a death metal concert of some kind, and his fears hinge on being repeatedly mauled by a bear… well, mission accomplished?
Dafoe plays Clint, a tortured man who absconded to the wilds of northern Canada after the civilized portion of his life didn’t work out. Self-diagnosed as “a romantic figure gone to seed” (which is a cute way of saying “an Abel Ferrara character”), Clint runs a bar so remote that it feels like a “Far Side” comic waiting to happen; Eskimos, Russians, and other denizens of the Arctic occasionally wander there through a teal alien landscape that almost looks tinted like a silent film. One patron sidles up at a casino-like arcade game called “Left, Right, Center,” where he makes futile attempts to achieve some kind of alignment. Another is a beautiful and extremely pregnant woman who arrives with her old mother in tow, inspiring Clint to drop to his knees and lick at her linea nigra with erotic abandon.
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There’s a tactile beauty to these somnambulant early scenes, which find a man separated from his own soul, and trying to divine the difference between himself and the external forces that have come to define him. “Your soul is outside of you, and you must claim it,” Clint is told by a vaguely Satanic vision of his brother (also played by Dafoe). “You pretend to be open to all things, but you can’t believe how close-minded you are.” And yet, for a film that invites your mind to wander in whatever direction it wants, it’s perverse that “Siberia” only provides fertile terrain to explore when its story is still bound to a single location. As soon as Clint busts out of his bar, hitches himself to a dog sled, and mushes into the wilderness in order to begin his spirit quest, the movie is confined to the narrow corridors of Ferrara’s imagination.
Some of the stops along Clint’s journey towards self-actualization are more compelling than others, but most of them — from a casual stroll through a mass execution, to a feverish fuck between Clint and a woman he may have failed in his past — are strung together by their shared preoccupation with sex and violence. Since a language barrier prevents Ferrara’s protagonist from speaking with most of the characters he encounters, those twinned forces become Clint’s only clear avenues for understanding. Jung, who saw reason as the ultimate obstacle to clarity, regarded prudishness as one of logic’s most sinister prisons, and so it follows that “Siberia” can only map the human soul by charting the human body.
But the deeper that Clint burrows inside of himself, the harder it gets to track his whereabouts. For all of Ferrara’s reckless abandon — and Dafoe’s unimpeachable commitment to artistic exploration — “Siberia” becomes increasingly unable to instigate our own journeys of the soul; seldom has the collective unconscious felt so inaccessible. Clint’s inner world is far too sedate and impenetrable to excite the imagination, and the heightened symbology of Ferrara’s approach is at odds with the freehanded screenplay that he and Christ Zois wrote together.
It isn’t long before “Siberia” feels less like seeing a man’s dreams on screen than it does watching a man sleepwalk through our waking life, and an intractable silliness sets in by the time that Dafoe shows up as Clint’s brusque dad (the actor slathering his face in shaving cream to help tell the two characters apart) and plays both sides of a “you never loved me!” confrontation. Ferrara may have been determined to make a film that achieves the complete lack of reason, but “Siberia” is bereft of anything else as well.
“Siberia” premiered in Competition at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.