Credit: Berlinale
by Neil Bahadur Featured Film Spotlight

Siberia | Abel Ferrara

June 17, 2021

Siberia takes on nothing less than the very nature of reality, and is an emphatic statement on the necessity, not luxury, of creativity.

Relating to an interviewer about his moviegoing habits as a child, Abel Ferrara noted that his primary interest was in Westerns, and his interest in film, naturally, did not broaden until reaching early adulthood when he discovered directors like Pasolini, Godard and Fassbinder through the cultural climate of late ’60s and early ’70s New York as we see related in the directors documentary The Projectionist. In the latter sections of Siberia, we see Willem Dafoe fiddling with the figurines of two cowboys and a horse on an otherwise empty table.  But there’s no principle reference point here, and no “grand” metaphors for cinema Dafoe resembles merely a child playing with their toys and their imagination.

Siberia could conceivably be posited as the third part of a “reflexivity” trilogy consisting otherwise of the director’s previous two “narrative” features, Pasolini and Tommaso, essentially concerned with the relationship between an artist and their work; as we hear in the first of the three films, from the words of Pasolini himself, “Not a tale but a parable. The meaning of this parable is precisely the relationship of an author to the form he creates.” And though we can see this film itself being worked on throughout Tommaso, Siberia is arguably more of a spiritual sequel to Pasolini, but here sans any distinction between dreams, imagination and reality. This can often be testy, as the films use narrative functions more as placeholders rather than in their traditional configurations. Armond White, writing on Pasolini‘s belabored U.S. release in 2019, notes that the immediate tendency to view Ferrara’s more radical works as artistic failures is less indicative of the work itself than it is of living in a period where it has become difficult to ascertain the complexity of political and artistic radicalism, and as such, it will be interesting to see how long it takes until Siberia is regarded not as a failure or an idiosyncratic mishap, but rather the work of a completely free, unrestrained artist making a film about precisely that the joys of being lost in creative imagination. As in the ending of one of Ferrara’s favorite films, Pasolini’s The Decameron, Giotto (played by the director himself) exclaims, “Why create a work of art, when dreaming about it is so much sweeter?” Except, then, Siberia goes one step further, as though to attempt to construct the act of dreaming itself.  One thinks too, perhaps, of Serge Daney’s glorious appraisal of Jacques Rivette: “He was never trying to sell us anything.”

Siberia was evidently made based around Carl Jung’s The Red Book, a set of manuscripts written in a period of intense uncertainty and reconsideration of theories following the end of his relationship with Sigmund Freud. This manifests as not necessarily Lynchian as some writers have noted but surprisingly as something closer to Malick’s The Tree of Life, namely in how the film is designed around the recollection of foundational childhood experience, the circumstances surrounding how one grasps those core events, and how that shapes one’s perception within adulthood.  Because there is never any clear distinction between dream, fantasy, reality, and so on (until an ingenious switch near the film’s end which shows us that Ferrara has been cross-cutting the entire time), the film exhibits itself as a virtually immediate narrative fake-out, before functioning almost entirely as a kind of stimulation of psychological senses. In one sequence, it is initially unclear whether Dafoe is communicating with his brother, his double, or himself (also played by Dafoe). In typical Jungian fashion, it is suggested that this is the shadow of the protagonist, but even with the borderline cliché dialogue, it’s hard to shake the effectiveness of its mere shot-counter shot structuring literally of the same person.  The figure of Dafoe’s character Clint himself seems to be on a quest to narrativize his own life, only just barely possessing a grasp on reality by journey’s end, having montaged his life’s experiences and ideas throughout the film’s runtime instead.  Yet, ironically, Ferrara’s Jungian complex here only ever ends up leading to Freudian terrors behavioral complexes and psychopathy connected to the father, and sexual complexes connected to the mother. When the director claimed “this movie’s gonna scare people” during its Kickstarter announcement almost five years ago, he wasn’t joking.

The terror of Siberia (possibly Ferrara’s first true horror film) is in Clint’s back-to-nature resolve, only to discover that the dreams of the 60s have shattered and nature is nothing if not ruthless. The true horror is determinism the entire film is driven by an anxiety that people cannot shake their past (at one point Ferrara even recreates the devastating “tell it to your son” sequence from Dangerous Game), not just in choice but even in their own genetic code. These things drive the film, even with its obvious Plato’s Cave metaphors, as well as demonstrating some of the most commanding filmmaking of Ferrara’s career. Yet, conversely (but as we’ll see near the film’s end, necessarily so), it’s also arguably the most playful film of his entire career, with sequence after sequence only held together by the barest connective tissue, never moving from one to the other like A to B but as though each sequence is allowed to function on its own terms. As such, it’s hard to deny the formal inspiration that’s consistently on display.

Dafoe’s Clint, however, doesn’t necessarily always feel like a metaphor for Ferrara or even Dafoe (given their close collaboration), or frankly much of a person at all, but rather an actualized avatar for the viewer. A poor metaphor maybe, but at times Siberia can feel like a video game, but one wherein the player navigates the nooks and crannies of Ferrara or Dafoe (or both’s) repressed psyche in much the same way as an open world. There is a kind of switch, however, in the film’s final sections beginning with Dafoe’s performance of Del Shannon’s Runaway (a sequence that could very well become iconic), featuring a beautiful cut to Dafoe’s shadow dancing against a wall, a perhaps crude but nevertheless touching metaphor for Clint’s decimation of ego and rebirth as part of the world. It’s then that the toys mentioned at the beginning start to make sense, as do the following sudden images of Dafoe/Clint/Ferrara playing some parkside game with complete wonder and innocence. When we cut back to the supposed reality, replete with dog sleds, Dafoe appears as if almost nomadic, gathering wood and making a fire. This juxtaposition with some of the earlier sequences is jarring and to perhaps the more cynical viewer may seem absurd, but the ingenuity of Siberia comes exactly from this proximity of terror and creativity. As corny as it may sound, Siberia is a near-masterpiece (if not masterpiece wholesale) about rediscovering one’s own inner child aka, the artist. And as such, this is perhaps also a hopeful metaphor for how Ferrara perceives his own artistry.  So when later there appears a talking fish, it feels foregone that it should be there, even though we’ve returned to an ostensible reality.  When Dafoe looks at the sky, it’s not a real sky — rather, it’s the sky of a movie, something that was created, not natural. Yet the film intentionally reinforces its reality throughout, one which is about not the luxury of creativity but the necessity of it, and that a life without dreams, whether sleeping, sleepless, or awake, is no life at all. 

Originally published as part of Berlin International Film Festival 2020 | Dispatch 3.