Writers: Abel Ferrara and Christ Zois

Director: Abel Ferrara

As one gets older, the search for the meaning of life becomes more poignant. But this quest has nothing to do with being wise as wisdom comes when one accepts that one will never understand it. Being wise would also mean that one wouldn’t have to try to understand Abel Ferrara’s new film, which stars Willem Dafoe as man in search of the truth.

Back together after last year’s Tommasso, Ferrara and Dafoe work well together, and in Siberia there are plenty of close ups of the actor’s weathered face looking quizzical but beneficent. While the audience doesn’t have a clue what’s going on, Dafoe is a grounding presence.

And he needs to be in a film that crosses continents and genres. Dafoe plays Clint, a man who runs a bar in the middle of the mountains. It’s where he used to go as a boy with his father. He remembers it with a slight horror; when he would use the outhouse in the middle of the night the huskies would chase him, barking and nipping at his heels. The memory comes as the titles roll, and it’s the only moment of humour in the 90-minute film.

Despite the bar’s remoteness, Clint still gets customers for his hot coffee and his vodka. Indigenous fishermen arrive, while a Russian woman visits who seems to be carrying his baby. An American man comes to play the slot machines but Clint doesn’t like to play; he doesn’t like to win and he doesn’t like to lose.

But when he goes down the cellar to change the barrel or restock on the vodka the film becomes surreal and slippery. The cellar steps disappear and he’s hanging on the side of a mountain. From now on, we seem to be in Clint’s head as he trawls the past reuniting with his parents and reliving the sex he had with the loves of his life. But he gets no closer to knowing himself, and it seems that even the dark arts can’t help him magic up the truth.

It’s best to let the scenes – all beautifully shot, especially when the action moves to the desert, the huskies a wonderful juxtaposition on the orange sand – just wash over you, and not to take things too seriously. It’s not an easy watch as some of the scenes are harrowing, and the sex scenes are fairly explicit. But surprisingly for a meditative examination, scenes only last a few minutes, before Clint enters a new realm or confronts a new memory, or has a new encounter with a new sage, one repeating the words of Nietzsche.

This film – cinematic and epic – deserves to be seen on a big screen, where one can’t zone out and toy with one’s phone. By its end, as Clint returns to the mountains, there is a sense that some wisdom has been attained and the film despite its meanderings seems complete. Maybe one day Siberia will be seen as Ferrara’s great work, eclipsing Bad Lieutenant or Pasolini, but that day is not now.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October 2020


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