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BERLINALE 2020 Competition

Review: Siberia

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- BERLINALE 2020: After Tommaso, Abel Ferrara is back with another self-reflective piece, a collection of Freudian nightmares and silliness that is a fun ride as long as you don't take it seriously

Review: Siberia
Willem Dafoe in Siberia

Since his 2014 biopic Pasolini [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Abel Ferrara
film profile
]
, Abel Ferrara has made three documentaries and Tommaso [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Abel Ferrara
film profile
]
, a (semi-)autobiographical film in which Willem Dafoe played an ageing film director fighting his demons. With Siberia [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, which has just world-premiered in the Berlinale's competition, Ferrara seems to be continuing down this self-reflective road, achieving a more engaging and certainly crazier result.

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It is hard to tell what is reality and what is a dream, nightmare, hallucination, or memory in Siberia, but let's say that the first 15 minutes of the feature could represent some fairly solid ground: Clint (Dafoe) lives in a cabin in some snowbound woods and runs a decrepit, bare-bones bar. His first patron is an Inuit (it could be the very same one that Tommaso was planning to make a film about), whose language he does not speak, but the selection of drinks available is so sparse that it only takes about a minute to come to the conclusion that the guest wants rum and tea.

However, already with the next couple of customers, things start to get – to put it mildly – weird. A young woman and an old lady enter, speaking Russian, without any English subtitles. They also get tea and ask for vodka, at which point Clint joins them, only to realise that the babushka is claiming that the child in the young woman's womb belongs to him. As the girl opens her dress, Clint goes around from the back of the bar to kneel, kiss her pregnant belly and caress her breasts.

What follows is a series of visions, dreams or hallucinations in which the hero confronts his father (Dafoe with shaving foam on his face), mother (in a very literally Oedipal scene), ex-wife and young son, and a succession of what we assume are former girlfriends, but also archetypal characters such as a magician, a teacher and a monk, plus an assorted collection of nightmarish figures, such as a naked midget lady in a wheelchair.

Although the film's title implies a cold, wintry setting, this is only one of the wild variety of locations, which include an oasis in a desert (where he arrives with the huskies that had previously been pulling his sled), a very dark cave, an equally dark green room in which a group of punks kick and push a loudspeaker until a boy – a young Clint, we assume – falls out of it, and a torture-filled death camp. In addition, the hero gets attacked by a bear in a truly scary POV sequence, but also dances by himself to Del Shannon's “Runaway”, playing from a seven-inch single on a turntable.

When a film has so little in the way of plot, it is hard to judge its narrative merits, and not much easier to give any kind of mark to its technical achievements. However, for what it’s worth, Stefano Falivene's camerawork and lighting faithfully follow the changes in the atmosphere, which are promptly announced by Joe Delia's eclectic score.

As a whole, Siberia actually works much better than Tommaso, if you don't take it too seriously and just go with it. Even such a (pseudo-)Freudian jumble feels less self-indulgent than its overstretched and overambitious predecessor. Here, at least, when the feature ends with a freshly caught fish in a bucket quoting Nietzsche in German without subtitles, you realise you have been on a fun, if very bumpy, ride.

Siberia is a co-production by Italy's Vivo Film and RAI Cinema, Germany's maze pictures and Mexico's Piano. Cologne-based The Match Factory has the international rights.

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