Masterpiece or masturbatory headtrip? You be the judge.
Abel Ferrara’s Siberia was one of the strangest films in this year’s Berlinale Competition lineup, a polarizing and existential head-trip that feels like starring into the mouth of godless oblivion. It’s either a 4-star work of cinematic boldness or an insufferable 1-star exercise in untamed indulgence. Tough to know which.
To describe the plot (what little there is of one) feels a little foolhardy. It’s a non-narrative piece that follows Clint (Ferrara’s long-time muse Willem Dafoe), a bartender in an isolated cabin at the end of the snowbound world. His company while in exile are Inuit, Russians, and a howl of huskies – all with whom he can’t linguistically connect. What follows is a mad trip down the recesses of Clint’s mind, which throws up oblique vignettes dealing with his fear of fatherhood and his desire for a sense of redemption. The dreamlike stream of consciousness tonally evokes the works of Carl Jung, Nietzsche and Lars von Trier; it includes a bear attack, an encounter with a young pregnant Russian woman, a feverish vision of body horror, a hooded figure imparting some life advise (“Be human. Enjoy. Fuck Up. Shit your arse. Dance.”), Clint listening to ‘Runaway’ by Del Shannon and then whimsically skipping around a maypole. And to cap off this hallucinatory tsunami, a freshly caught carp splutters something un-subtitled in Hebrew.
If that description just induced an almighty headache or you’re rolling your eyes so hard that your eyeballs just did a full 360° rotation, you’re only human. This isn’t for everyone, and the neatest way of encompassing this batshit crazy enterprise is through the words of the aforementioned Nietzsche, who is directly quoted in a sequence: Siberia is a long hard stare into the abyss.
If that doesn’t help, another coping mechanism is a line directly pulled from the script: “Your reason is an obstacle” warns one of Clint’s visitors. This may as well be Ferrara talking to his audience, advising them to leave all logic at the door and reminding viewers who need a minimum amount of A-to-B narrative structure that there’s a good book is waiting for them at home.
Siberia may lead some to chin-stroke on possible interpretations, while others might surrender to the dream logic and embrace the fact that there’s no place for intellectual masturbation when it comes to the warped corridors of the subconscious. The odds are that many will dismiss this film as Ferrara hiding behind his status as an “auteur” (whatever that means) and pretentiously taking the piss. Wherever you fall on the spectrum – puzzled, enchanted, or just plain angry – you crucially won’t feel indifferent.
Siberia / Directed by Abel Ferrara (Italy, Germany, Mexico, 2020), with Willem Dafoe, Cristina Chiriac, Simon McBurney. Starts July 02.