Siberia isn’t the kind of film that can be summarised in a sentence or two. Abel Ferrara’s latest – his sixth collaboration with star Willem Dafoe – is disorienting, abstract and pretty difficult to piece together, but for pure visual wonder and atmosphere, it’s an undeniably compelling watch.
Dafoe plays Clint, a deeply troubled bartender working out of the Siberian wilderness, who Ferrara clearly constructs as being an outsider in his surroundings: he barely speaks the language (hence any non-English dialogue isn’t subtitled), he muffles his way through conversations, and his repressed, animalistic desires occasionally creep out of the woodwork with horrifying effect. The reason behind his disturbing intrusive thoughts remains unclear, although there is one brief scene (that I won’t spoil) that may explain it, but the film’s opening act – which is pretty muddled and hard to engage with – centres around the increasingly intense visions and delusions that Clint has.
And as dream-like, terrifying sequences go, they’re really well executed. Without getting into what drives these moments, there’s some really erratic, Freudian instances, which give the film a very ethereal and dreamlike quality, as you piece together what is real and what is delusion. Often they raise more questions than they answer: was that real? Who was that person? Is this why Clint is so troubled? But in many ways it makes Siberia a rewarding and challenging watch – it’s definitely one that will become clearer upon repeat viewings.
That said, its propensity for the abstract means it’s not the most accessible film you’ll see at LFF this year. It’s purposefully light on dialogue, focusing more on visual storytelling to build up the world, and doesn’t follow any coherent structure – yet while this is initially disorienting, it mirrors the fervent disorder that is Clint’s psyche. Many will find it purposefully obtuse and unnecessarily pretentious – and there’s plenty of room to argue this – but it all feeds into this vision of Clint as a hugely mysterious, somewhat underdeveloped character.
And with a script that’s pretty bare, and a visual style that heavily leans towards the speculative, it’s lucky that Willem Dafoe’s performance as Clint anchors what could otherwise be a very messy film. It’s an understated performance where Dafoe leans more on body language and facial expression than anything else, and as Siberia‘s only main character, he does an admirable job of holding it all together. Yet despite his omnipresence – there isn’t a scene without him – he’s still quite a hard character to attach to, which is no fault of Dafoe’s but rather down to the ambiguity of the script.
Your enjoyment of Siberia will almost totally depend on your attitude towards it going in and your propensity for abstract, plot-light narratives. Ferrara’s direction isn’t the most accommodating, the film’s ethereal nature means it’s very easy to disengage from what’s happening, and it’s undeniably filmed from the male gaze, but on a sheer visual and emotional level it’s a very intriguing experience. What it lacks in plot it makes up for elsewhere – gorgeous camerawork, breathtaking vistas and truly gripping dream sequences – but you’ll certainly need to make your own interpretations of what’s happening, as you won’t be spoon-fed it.
Perhaps soon I’ll do a spoiler discussion to touch upon the more nuanced elements of the film, and to give my interpretation of events, but until then, I advise to watch Siberia with expectations in check. There isn’t much else quite like it, but it’s certainly one to give a try.