Berlinale 2020 Review: Siberia

One of the most fascinating – and without a doubt the strangest – competition entries starts on a conventional note. A spoken word prologue sketches Clint’s (Willem Dafoe) childhood holidays with his late father in Alaska where a pack of intimidating huskies would follow the boy around. Fast forward to the present, Clint finds himself in the frozen landscape of Siberia, where he mans a bar in a small cabin, surrounded by icy peaks and snowdrifts. In exile, his only company are the same huskies and thirsty customers who speak but Inuit and Russian – which are not subtitled, pointing out Clint’s lack of connection.

Beware that this is not your regular nature sojourn. Soon enough a sudden cut to an up-close attack by a wild bear jolts the audience awake, followed by a visit by a Russian woman (Christina Chiriac) and her grandma. Never mind the cold, the woman draws back her heavy coat to expose her naked, pregnant body, a strangely comforting scene (or is it only comforting if you speak Russian?). Soon after, Clint takes an overtly symbolic plunge into the cellar of the cabin, where different kinds of horrors await.

From here on, the story moves into a dreamlike, hallucinatory terrain. We follow Clint as he takes a trip on subconscious roads chock-full with driftwood from his past, feverish visions, the stuff of nightmares and body horror. From slippery cliffs, to a disturbingly graphic realization of a Russian death camp, to a cave filled with the mortal sick, the first tableaus are straight from a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Clint’s huskies are his ever-present silent companions (what’s the psychoanalytic reading of a dog?) as he goes through a series of encounters with ghosts from his past. A vision of his brother accuses him of being lazy, his ex-wife regrets love lost, his late mother notes that he hasn’t even been present at her deathbed. These encounters balance the literal and enigmatic by their choice of setting, camera angles and a nuanced dialogue. Other scenes see Clint reconnect with past loves in grand orgiastic communions. A stray soul gives him an important advice: respect the authority of sleep and the language of dreams.

And on goes the sled, moving from tundra, to a desert, to a maypole celebration. Ferrara’s movie takes tropes of classic road trips (Odyssey, Inferno) and infuses them with an ornate cinematic language to create his own version of a road to a – possible? – redemption. Whether this approach works for you depends on your willingness to hop on the sleigh to nowhere and surrender to a universe of moons and supernovae, clashing heavy metal and ambient droning.

The freewheeling screenplay by Ferrara and Christ Zois is elevated by Ferrara’s longtime friend and muse Willem Dafoe. His physicality and ragged features encapsulate the abandon of the character, the intimate connection between director and actor is felt throughout and rescues the thin material from becoming a string of banal scenes. Is Siberia moving towards any set destination and what is to happen when it arrives? Those are wrong questions to ask. Is this wild ride like something you’ve seen before? Probably not.

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