Siberia hits Blu-ray this week, and it’s the latest collaboration between Abel Ferrara and his serial cinematic surrogate Willem Dafoe. The film premiered at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival in early 2020 and is the sixth and possibly most audacious collaboration yet between the two. I tend to not watch trailers and I picked this up, aware only of the poster which oddly enough was a riff off of Harrison’s Ford’s family friendly Call of the Wild. So I was curious to say the least of what I would get here, honestly — I wasn’t prepared for what lay before me after hitting play based on that static image.
Siberia is a surreal metaphorical and metaphysical journey into the soul of a man in his twilight. After an intro from Willem Dafoe’s character Clint about a yearly childhood camping trip he would take with his father into northern Canada, we then cut to Clint working at that same wintery retreat, replete with the sled dogs that once terrified him as a child. While the film starts off very straight forward in its trajectory, it’s when you discover Dafoe is also playing his brother in dual roles (ultimately three roles here) also working at the retreat, that you begin to glimpse the film’s nightmarish logic that slowly erodes away any clear linear path the narrative could possibly follow. Instead you’re left with an experimental look at how Clint is using this formative experience at this place to parse through his memories and how it influenced and shaped the man he came to be.
At times Siberia feels a lot like a stage play as Clint delivers these rather dense monologues questioning destiny, life, love — all while looking for someone who can teach him the “Black Arts”. In the credits it attributes some dialogue to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche which explains some of the darker imagery employed as Clint travels on this journey for enlightenment or some kind of resolution. Dafoe is pretty spectacular here and carries the piece as the majority of the characters he interacts with don’t speak English and it’s not subtitled for the benefit of the audience either. It’s a tactic that further isolates the audience from anyone Clint interacts with, as we are ultimately left wondering if he found what he was looking for during our time spent with him.
I think this might be the pair’s most personal film. While it does get distracted and occasionally ventures on these shocking interludes, the film burrows into the male psyche of our character who I imagine is sitting in his idyllic home or possibly on his deathbed, while this plays out in his head. There’s a lot to sift through after watching Siberia, while mortality is definitely on top thematically, we also see Clint struggling to parse together his identity and how the trauma he endured influenced it. I think it’s only because Ferrara and Dafoe have this intimate relationship, that the two can turn out a film like this that has Dafoe so vulnerable both physcially and emotionally while exploring these questions. Siberia is a film that if you can tune into it wavelength the logic will eventually wash over you it will claim you, but for those you can’t dial in you will no doubt be left out in the cold.