CAPSULE: SIBERIA (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Abel Ferrara

FEATURING: Willem Dafoe

PLOT: The owner of an outpost on the snowy outskirts of nowhere journeys through the countryside and his memories alongside his team of dogs.

COMMENTS: Were I to pitch this disingenuously, I could make the case that this movie is weird. There’s the chanting dwarf woman in her wheelchair, in a cave. Willem Dafoe dances around a maypole with a dozen or so children. And at one point a dead fish in a metal dish utters some cryptic remarks. Cryptic, now, that’s something that Siberia has in a spades. Once again, Abel Ferrara is working with Willem Dafoe, who seems to keep the actor in his pocket for any art-house forays. And once again, Ferrara plumbs intensely personal depths, this latter-day habit depicted on-screen when Dafoe’s character falls down a chasm that appears in the basement of his Siberian tavern.

Clint (Willem Dafoe) tends bar and is intermittently attacked by demons—of the metaphorical variety, alas. He appears to be friends with a native (not a local Slavic Russian, but a Native native), without understanding a word of the hunter/trapper’s language. Clint also seems to know no Russian, as evidenced during a visit from a babushka, her daughter, and, indirectly, the third generation of that family: the unborn child in the daughter’s womb. This encounter is the first of a series of odd, possibly meaningful scenes involving Clint kneeling before a bare-breasted woman and then having sex with her.

Stylistically, Ferrara is a lingerer. He will keep his shot going until he’s satisfied, regardless how awkward it may make the viewer feel. There are obvious overtones of lust and fertility in the Clint/breast scenes, but they are executed in such a way that appreciation seems to morph into supplication, itself morphing into something less definable (but bordering on creepy). His gaze is not just salacious, however: it is filled with pathos. The graceful lines of Dafoe’s gaunt face shift in severity between awe and dismay and surprise, as in one moment he observes a sunrise in a subterranean lake, then witnesses a congregation of tormented ghosts in the cave, and the next moment listens to his dead father outline a fishing trip. This segment includes one of the film’s incongruous bursts of comedy as the two men (both played by Dafoe) converse: “Dad, don’t you remember what the doctor said?” asks Clint, “What was that?” responds the father. “He said you’re dead.”

There is a reliable floor to the quality of any Abel Ferrara film, going all the way back to his pseudonymously directed debut. He knows technique, form, dialogue, timing, all that. However, he’s going through a bit of a navel-gazing stage in his career. Some brief research gave no indication that Clint’s memories are the director’s own (though considering he wrote the screenplay, I have my suspicions); but regardless of whom Clint is based upon, Siberia is little more than a modestly surreal, moderately compelling, and much too cryptic slice of an old man’s mind.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This sort of visceral movie is about the experience, not the logic. Graphic nudity and violence ensure that scenes literally bleed from one to another. Along the way, the passages weave an odd and surreal continuity, with moments of quiet boredom that segue swiftly into ferocious visual jolts.” -Thomas Tunstall, Irish Film Critic (Blu-ray)

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