BERLINALE ’20 – ‘Siberia’: A Solid Dafoe Performance Can’t Save Ferrara’s Latest

Image: Berlinale

Alone in a dark cave, a man watches silently as a blood-red sun rises slowly from an underground lake, casting it’s golden light across the face of Clint (Willem Dafoe) as he travels an uncertain yet familiar landscape. It is one of many moments of beauty in a film that is unfortunately not much more than skin deep with it’s intentions.

Abel Ferrara’s latest mind-twisting epic Siberia about one man’s search for himself is a complicated, disfigured piece of cinema whose messiness hides some interesting thematic content and a strong performance from the ever reliable Willem Dafoe. 

The film opens with the apparent construction of a straightforward narrative: Clint describes a semi-annual fishing trip he used to take with his hardworking, but distant father into the mountains. There, they would be surrounded by solitude and in the present day Clint is apparently living out that lifestyle, running a lonely bar high up in the snowy mountains in a place unnamed. A Russian woman, revealed to be heavily pregnant with Clint’s child, arrives with her grandmother to visit and drink, and that, more or less, is when film starts to turn on its head.

Image: Berlinale

There is no plot in Siberia, it is more a loosely connected series of scenarios in which Clint wanders, slightly aimlessly through various gorgeous backdrops. There are inhospitable mountains, caves, desert tundra – all tackled with his faithful huskies in tow – who collectively deserve a Best Supporting Actor nomination for the countless reaction shots that pitched just at the sweet spot between boredom and judgemental which is, frankly, impressive.

Ferrara does reach for some tangentially related themes that are threaded haphazardly through a ninety-two minute run time that feels much longer: healing, recovery, and the dichotomy between accepted medicine and the “dark arts” that Clint is seemingly wanting to discover. 

Image: Berlinale

However, it is his treatment of the female – characters would be too generous a description – actors that appear on screen that sticks in the throat. They are beautiful and unknown – often speaking languages other than English that are not subtitled for the audience – which simply renders them voiceless beings whose only reason for existance is to have sex with Clint in a montage that runs for a voyueristically long time. The only woman who is allowed the capacity to have a voice is Ex-Wife (Dounia Sichov), who is consequently the only female character who does not sleep with Clint, instead remonstrating with him about the treatment of his son (Anna Ferrara) who sits on the floor painting wordlessly. 

With moments that will no doubt live on long on the memory of the internet – singing fish, husky reaction shots and a maypole dance – Siberia is a jaded and often boring mediation on one man’s (kind of) quest to discover himself. It’s hard to care about the journey of a character when you’re not sure where he’s come from. 

by Rose Dymock

Rose is a budding film critic, who graduated from the University of Liverpool with an MRes in Film Studies. She’s currently living back home in the Black Country in the West Midlands, juggling working full time and trying to break into criticism. She loves thrillers, great female characters, Al Pacino, and multilingual cinema. She’s not entirely sure if she’s a millennial and she wants a Lord of the Rings tattoo. Find her on twitter @rosedymock or on her website

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