Last we saw of Abel Ferrara was with still-undistributed Cannes premiere Tommaso in 2019, starring Willem Dafoe as an aging, self-hating director. Siberia, premiering at Berlinale less than a year later, is perhaps the director’s elusive, hypothetical film. Starring Willem Dafoe again, who had previously collaborated with the auteur on projects like Pasolini, New Rose Hotel, and 4:44 Last Day On Earth, it’s a western set in the icy tundra.
It’s a disservice for the film to premiere in competition at the festival. In a general exhibition category, or even a theme category, the film would have a more limited audience genuinely interested in what it had to say. Instead, competition invites high profile coverage from critics with no interest in the film looking to review all competitors. The film gets a slew of bad reviews from disinterested reviewers that are not in the audience that care for what Siberia has to say, and the film is hurt by this audience being broader than it will ever have in the future.
Dafoe plays Clint, a dead man who lives alone in this frozen tundra. Isolation may not bring him peace, but it doesn’t bring devastating loneliness either. Clint’s purgatory leads him to a night in which he wanders through his dreams and fears, a trek west that never leaves his own head. It’s a delirium of alcohol-induced paranoia, a funhouse walk through the darkest parts of a troubled man’s mind. It’s an animalistic sadness instead of the usual melancholy, one where it becomes worrying what the man behind it could do to himself if not making film.
Ferrara is at his most unhinged here. He says that he “wants to see if we really can film dreams.” In this case, these dreams are bathed in shadow and light, filled with death metal concerts, bears, and a lot of sex. Honestly, these are unsurprising things for the renowned director to dream about based on what we’ve seen from him. He has said his childhood love for cinema came from being raised in a diet of westerns, and it shows heavily here. Dafoe picks up a toy cowboy and horse and plays with them for a moment. This is no metaphor, Clint is simply a child in a man’s body for a moment. Here we are reminded that we are a dream, and dreams can be a trek through past memories.
The whole thing is absolute madness, and for all the truth within it, it’s hard to believe that Abel Ferrara’s greatest fear is wrestling a grizzly bear. It’s much more realistic when it’s horny and deranged, a true nightmare western. It has its softer moments; Willem Dafoe and his sled dogs may be the image we all needed. The dramatically lit caves and wintery plains are stunning imagery, it’s odd to find beauty in a full hell-bent upon misery, but it’s there. It’s a film ripe for psychoanalysis, although the face value is still strongly affecting.
It’s mainly a treasure trove for those who are already fans of Abel Ferrara, and therapy for the director to unpack his feelings. It’s a film that feels like it was made because an artist wanted to, not for any particular audience. It’s great to see that any crazed idea can be brought to life with little premise, and it’s something we’d love to see more. Many have called the film miserable, nonsensical, and pointless. It’s somewhat refreshing to see art so unabashedly downbeat and raw get made, and have such a high profile. It is so entirely in contrast with the optimism of mainstream indie film many don’t quite know what to make of this flawed but ambitious tour of the human psyche. Siberia may be the most indicative film of the year; it’s angry, self hating, and deeply lonely, while being so angry at the world it’s hard to believe culture is hating a film so much like us right now.