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Siberia

Clint tends a bar in the snowy sticks of possibly Canada. But his journey leads him into himself, towards his past, his regrets and the women he loved.

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Abel Ferrara’s career stretches back to the 1970’s, when he provided his own brand of arty exploitation movies for New York’s grindhouse theaters. Since then, his films have continued to be both artful and transgressive, often going to extremes while pursuing his personal obsessions and idiosyncrasies. In other words, he fits the bill as one of America’s more outre auteurs.

Like most indie filmmaker’s of his era, the 1990’s was a high-water mark, with works like KING OF NEW YORK, BAD LIEUTENANT and ADDICTION earning him both praise and controversy. The last decade or so has been far less kind. Films like GO GO TALES and PASOLINI have lingered for years with spotty distribution, making them difficult for even dedicated Ferrara fans to track down. But thanks to some recent retrospectives (like last year’s MoMA celebration) and rounds of critical reappraisals, there’ve been whispered hopes of a late-career renaissance.

Enter SIBERIA. Like 2019’s TOMMASO, SIBERIA is deeply personal filmmaking that features Ferrara’s wife and daughter in roles, as well as Willem Dafoe, who can be seen as something of a stand-in for the director. This time around, however, things get far more experimental.

At first, the title SIBERIA appears to be literal. Dafoe’s character Clint is seen tending bar at some outpost deep within a snowy wilderness, serving drinks to Inuit- and Russian-speaking patrons. But things quickly turn metaphorical. There’s someone named Mitchell who’s also working at the bar, and also played by Dafoe. Before long, Mitchell is barking at Clint from within a glowing red pond in the basement, telling Clint that he needs to put an end to his self-imposed exile if he’s really going to do any proper soul-searching. Cut to Clint hopping on a dog sled and heading into the wilderness to face his personal demons.

SIBERIA is reportedly inspired by Carl Jung’s The Red Book, which collects the famed psychiatrist’s attempts at interrogating the images that emerged from journeys into his imagination and subconscious. This is essentially what’s going on in SIBERIA as Clint takes an inward journey through the past and talks to his dad, his ex-wife and his mom -- the people who haunt his troubled psyche. Since his father was a doctor, Clint’s also haunted by grotesque sick people who stumble around repeating phrases like, “I’m waiting for the doctor.”

Along his journey, Clint encounters some past mentors who are practitioners of the “black arts,” which can be read as the art of filmmaking. After talking to one of these mysterious figures (billed as “The Monk” in the credits), Clint dances to the Del Shannon tune “Runaway,” which was the theme song of Michael Mann’s Crime Story, a TV show that Ferrara worked on early in his career. Is the Monk a stand-in for Michael Mann? I like to think so.

This is just one of many mind-bending moments in SIBERIA, a movie that is sure to infuriate some and entrance others. For me, SIBERIA is the kind of personal, risky filmmaking that Martin Scorsese was talking about in his New York Times op-ed last November. It’s bold and audacious, sometimes ridiculous, but absolutely the kind of cinema that we need more of.

Sean Erickson

Credits

Italien/Deutschland/Mexiko 2020, 92 min
Language: English
Genre: Drama, Experimental film
Director: Abel Ferrara
Author: Abel Ferrara, Christ Zois
DOP: Stefano Falivene
Montage: Fabio Nunziata, Leonardo D. Bianchi
Music: Joe Delia
Distributor: Port au Prince
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Simon McBurney, Dounia Sichov, Cristina Chiriac
FSK: 16
Release: 02.07.2020

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