By Michael Sicinski

Abel Ferrara is a changed man. While the evidence suggests that this is very good news for Ferrara himself and his immediate family, it could result in a minor schism in the manner in which his films are received. For most of his career Ferrara has been the subject of a Romantic cult that glorified his legendarily self-destructive behaviour, and often read this (literal) lawlessness as an integral part of his renegade creative vision. Even as perspicacious a thinker as Nicole Brenez (author of what remains the finest critical monograph on Ferrara) has tended to identify the director’s avant-gardism with the compulsions and self-destructiveness of his protagonists, figures who are thrashing about in order to free themselves of “impassioned bondage.” 

But if we only appreciate Ferrara as a belligerent wild man, what happens once he cleans up his act? We began seeing a very different side of this artist in 2014 when he released Pasolini, a sharp, materialist biopic about the great Italian poet-director (Willem Dafoe) that was not only about a man whose fury was tempered by remarkable artistic discipline, but a film that embodied that ethic as well. By the time Ferrara made the overtly autobiographical Tommaso (2019), it was clear that we were dealing with a highly deliberate dramatist and visual thinker, not the spasmodic naïf he’s sometimes been made out to be. Tommaso is about an American filmmaker (Dafoe) living in Rome with his wife and daughter, trying to negotiate the pleasures and difficulties of everyday life. In the midst of all this, the Dafoe character repeatedly attends AA meetings, articulating the struggle between the happiness of his new life and the pull of addiction, the endless toggle between the manic and the mundane. Also, in a couple of scenes, we see the director working on the script and visual design for a new feature film, one that looks exactly like Siberia (2020). 

A film both fantastical and brutally sober, Siberia explores the ontology of the subject as well as the representational capacities of cinema. While it begins as a mostly silent portrait of a man (Dafoe) operating a distant watering hole in the middle of what could be the eponymous frozen wasteland, the film undergoes so many permutations that we are kept off-balance right up to the very end. We never know if Dafoe represents an actual human being, whether he is alive or dead, which plane of existence is being depicted, or, in fact, how many. And perhaps more startlingly, when we see some of Siberia’s rawest, most volatile scenes (e.g., Dafoe making love to a pregnant Russian woman on the floor of the bar while her elderly mother looks on), they cannot be waved away as Ferrara’s customary lack of self-censorship. This is the film we must contend with—the film as it exists in the world, without apologies.

Siberia is a work of disarming honesty, and as such it is easy to reject itas merely pretentious. But that’s a reaction that protects us from the active discomfort Ferrara elicits. As it explores the male psyche, Siberia also unravels it, demonstrating the dead end of sexist Romanticism and the hero myth. As a plunge into the artistic ego, Siberia may resemble Fellini more than Pasolini, but in terms of its externalization of magic and spirituality, it displays strong undertones of Tarkovsky. And while Ferrara takes those directors’ visions very seriously, he also shows that they are untenable. There is nothing to be done with the grand modernist subject except to completely take him apart, burn him, and scatter the ashes.

While Dafoe is certainly an actor who can and will follow Ferrara out to the very limits of logic and restraint, he is also the ideal collaborator for this new phase of Ferrara’s career. As opposed to earlier performers like Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken, or Matthew Modine, Dafoe provides a discipline that helps Ferrara ground some of his more expressionist tendencies. I hesitate to call it “gravitas,” since Dafoe is always game for Ferrara’s sillier conceits: in Go Go Tales (2007), for example, he played club owner Ray Ruby as a grinning, pleading comic variant on the Cassavetes man, for whom masculinity is an existential performance with life-or-death stakes. But here, as in Pasolini, Dafoe evinces a kind of tired wisdom in his portrayal of an individual who has been granted vision beyond the scope of ordinary humanity. While his Pasolini was a Marxist philosopher who understood society as a system and whose insights could not save him, Siberia’s “Clint” is, depending on your interpretation, the next phase of that total being or a complete inversion of it. A kind of Nietzschean “last man” who may not even be human, exactly, this figure (he’s not really a character) blurs any and all lines between the personal and the allegorical. Even as he traverses the frozen tundra on his dogsled, we cannot know if he is negotiating physical space or plunging deeper into his own mindscape.

Ferrara has said in interviews that Siberia was inspired by the notebooks of Carl Jung, written at the period when Jung was undergoing the crisis of faith that would lead to his ultimate break with Sigmund Freud. One does not need to know this going into the film, but it does possibly provide a degree of thematic unity where one could previously only see meticulous chaos. Dafoe’s avatar encounters memories from what appear to be a specific past: meeting his dead father, re-encountering an ex-wife (Dounia Sichov) and a child (Anna Ferrara), and various meetings with prospective “teachers of the black arts.” This would suggest that he is a character with a life story of some sort.

But elsewhere, Dafoe’s actions and encounters are much more unpredictable, following a symbolic or dream logic. At times, Siberia resembles the third season of Twin Peaks, in the sense that we have a figure undergoing various otherworldly trials while also appearing to have a foot in a recognizable world, while other sections are more akin to the high-art endeavours of Matthew Barney or Bill Viola: the tundra, the forests, the ink-black darkness of the frame, all suggest a much more primal, atavistic space. And in one key moment early in the film, when Dafoe attempts to enter the basement of his bar and drops off a bare-faced cliff, the result is not unlike the “anabasis” from Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built (2018), only without any dark humour and with no Virgil as a guide.

This zone of uncertainty is not completely new for Ferrara. The final third of New Rose Hotel (1998), for example, comes unmoored from space and time, to the extent that we are fairly certain that the “hotel” is a space of the mind. But Siberia is something more radical, as Ferrara abjures the rugged masculinity that has featured throughout his oeuvre, even if only in parody. Here, as in another Clint’s Unforgiven (1992), a man sets off on a task and loses all sense of self in the process. Sexual temptations, of a sort, avail themselves to him, but there is no pleasure of the flesh: there is only the wonder of creation, the pain of regret, the staggering reopening of the Oedipal wound. 

Through it all, Clint’s sled dogs provide some of the film’s only consistent reaction shots as they stare impassively, watching but not comprehending human pain. Although they provide some companionship, they actually have more in common with the pitiless landscape than they do with Clint: the dogs are nature, and nature has no time for human indecision. When we know where we are going, they will help us get there. Until then, they are simply waiting for their supper, unaware of the struggles of the soul. In a career defined by the examination of humanity in extremis, Siberia represents yet another bold new frontier.

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