Siberia – VIFF 2020 Review

Proving once again beyond any shadow of a doubt that he’s one of modern cinema’s most unpredictable, prolific and provocative of filmmakers, and perhaps one who’s also touched with an otherworldly grace, Abel Ferrara (Ms .45, Bad Lieutenant, Tommas) busies himself exorcising some strange cinematic demons while unleashing his own inner force in his new film, Siberia. Once more reteaming with his current mainstay and ready muse Willem Dafoe, this surreal digression feels like a subarctic delineation of James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” and is also perhaps just as polarizing.

Siberia finds our somewhat quixotic protagonist Clint (Dafoe) dutifully posted at an unruly bar in the titular Russian province. It’s the kind of place where demanding and rather volatile customers suddenly transform into snarling bears, spilling beer and carelessly carousing in a rather dangerous manner. As the denizens of Clint’s establishment pay him tribute it quickly becomes clear that we, the viewer, are privy to someplace far more celestial and hypnagogic than your typical tavern or gin joint.

As Ferrara’s allegorical and byzantine-like film unfolds, one he co-wrote with five time collaborator Christ Zois (New Rose Hotel, Welcome to New York), it becomes the kind of deep dive where it’s very easy to lose track of all the narrative threads and digressions, and that may well be part of Siberia’s elaborate duplicity. Clint’s many doppelgängers, brushes with sorcerers, lactating women and naked dwarves all depose such fascinations.

Is it pretentious? Absolutely. Is that a problem? For some, maybe, but not for this writer. Siberia is so in succession lovely and startling to look at (thanks in large part to the studious lensing of DP Stefano Falivene), as well as being often quite comical, frequently baffling, and with meanings so heavily obfuscated, it becomes an engaging and fascinating fantasy/nightmare that is also almost the quintessential festival film. VIFF audiences are certain to be divided directly down the middle, and I’ll bet Ferrara wouldn’t want it any other way.

Admittedly I could seldom make sense of what was happening on screen a large part of the time, but I didn’t let that dampen the enjoyment I felt splashing around in these strangely surreal waters with the consistently wonderful Dafoe and the odd assortment of dreamlike no-goodniks, alluring sirens and dangerous visions that suck him and us into the sly abyss. It’s a dark deathtrip, maybe, and some kind of vivid and sequential coup d’etat.

Taste of Cinema Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.