Movies · Reviews

With ‘Siberia,’ Abel Ferrara Pushes New Boundaries

Willem Dafoe is in his element in cult director Abel Ferrara’s nightmarish, experimental journey into the subconscious.
Dafoe Siberia Abel Ferrara
London Film Festival
By  · Published on October 17th, 2020

In May 2015, Abel Ferrara stood on the rooftop terrace of David Lynch’s pop-up nightclub, Silencio, in Cannes and launched a Kickstarter campaign for a new film: Siberia. In return for their donations, Ferrara promised, Siberia would mark a “throwback” to the uncompromising “physical” cinema with which he made his name: films like Body Snatchers, Ms. 45, and King of New York.

This return to form would only be possible, Ferrara argued, because crowdfunding would allow him to work entirely uncompromised, no longer at the mercy of vision-censoring Hollywood producers whose financial backing of his work had been tapering off since the late ‘90s.

In the early 2000s, that waning support prompted a move to what Ferrara considered the more auteur-friendly Europe, where he has since shot several movies funded by Italian, French and German backers: Go Go Tales, Pasolini, and last year’s Tommaso. In the end, that was how Siberia was made, too – after failing to reach its Kickstarter goal, companies from Mexico and Europe swooped in to bankroll the production.

It’s hard to imagine a film as experimental as Siberia ever receiving funding in the US. Inspired by psychiatrist Carl Jung’s The Red Book, the film incorporates psychoanalysis of its star (Willem Dafoe) and the recurring nightmares of its director to produce a hallucinatory trip through the mind. Scenes of Dafoe as a barman self-exiled to the movie’s freezing namesake segue into surreal sequences in Bedouin camps, magic forests, and interrogation rooms, the jarring transitions explained only by the unpredictability of dream logic.

That Ferrara launched Siberia to the public at a venue named for the otherworldly club in Mulholland Drive is apt, given that the director here shares Lynch’s obsession with the oneiric. Siberia is a dream-like odyssey deep into the unconscious, in which Ferrara rejects easy coherence and linearity in his pursuit of the intangible. “Reason is an obstacle to some knowledge and secrets,” Simon McBurney’s magician tells Clint (Dafoe), a line that would appear to have been Ferrara’s guiding principle on set.

It’s a distinctly Jungian ethos. The Swiss psychologist theorized that a person could only realize their full potential if they had complete self-knowledge, which requires uncovering their unconscious through a process (“individuation”) that relies on dream analysis. In the Jungian view, all dreams, no matter how bizarre, contain meaningful symbols that demonstrate an attempt by the unconscious mind to communicate with the conscious. For Siberia, screenwriter and psychologist Christ Zois applied Jung’s process of dream decoding to Dafoe, resulting in a smorgasbord of nightmarish images peppering the film: Hebrew-talking fish, aggressive death metal concerts, and glaring suns floating above cave pools.

Adapting dense psychological theory into a movie is a risky premise: without an explicit frame of reference, intense personal introspection tends to have little appeal for anyone other than the subject. Through his concept of the “collective unconscious,” Jung’s theories offer Ferrara a potential angle for engaging audiences, although the director sensibly doesn’t bank too much on viewers tapping into that common mental language of primitive instincts and images that Jung believed all humans inherit at birth.

Instead, Ferrara invokes the general spirit of that theory, one shared by cinema itself: that there is great potential for universality in the specific. Siberia doesn’t place too much emphasis on its peculiar details, focusing its efforts instead on establishing an emotional portal through which viewers can find familiarity in, if not the exact contents of Clint’s journey (his bear phobia, daddy issues, and unresolved trouble with an ex), then the general shape of them (fear, insecurity, guilt).

Empathy, then, is at the core of Siberia. It would be easy to lose that heart amidst the film’s barrage of perplexing visuals, but – while intuitive editing and a simple lunar phase-inspired structure certainly help ground the film – Dafoe anchors it. Acclaimed for his versatility, the actor’s name has nevertheless been most closely associated with a handful of unforgettable bad guy parts — the Green Goblin in Spider-Man, Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart – perhaps because of a particular physiognomic reading that was neatly summarized in Sergio Leone’s reaction to seeing The Last Temptation of Christ: “This is the face of a psychopathic killer, not the face of Our Lord.”

In recent years, however, Dafoe has been quietly reminding viewers of his dexterity. In roles in The Florida Project, At Eternity’s Gate, and Ferrara’s own Tommaso, Dafoe is generously open, inviting not just admiration but deep affection for his low-key portrayals of vulnerable artists and everymen. His work in Tommaso as a fictionalised version of his friend Ferrara was especially impressive, with Dafoe winning a difficult plea for empathy in his deeply sensitive presentation of the notoriously brash New Yorker.

Unlike the talky Tommaso, Siberia is a film of few words, although Ferrara’s muse doesn’t need them to pull off the same effect. An experimental actor by training, he’s working in his favorite register here, using his extraordinary expressive abilities to channel a similar level of emotional nakedness in Clint’s navigation of his midlife crisis. That Siberia doesn’t disintegrate into a formless, abstract mess is largely thanks to its star, who builds a solid humanistic springboard from which to explore difficult questions of the soul. Whether getting down to ‘60s pop classics a la Christopher Walken in King of New York, frolicking around a maypole, or confronting childhood traumas, Dafoe imbues the film with a natural warmth that keeps the threat of cold intellectuality at bay.

There’s no doubting Siberia is a strange watch, but it’s also strangely watchable. Thanks to Dafoe’s energy and Ferrara’s sincerity, a premise you’d expect to be esoteric in practice actually feels profoundly empathetic, in keeping with the general trajectory of the director’s recent work. In the last decade, Ferrara has abandoned pulpy plunges into greed and drug-fuelled moral decay for continued meditations on guilt, redemption, and fresh concerns like sobriety and parenthood. His protagonists are no longer interested in defensively burying themselves under vice and violence – at mid-life, they’re ready to confront their deepest self.

In films like Tommaso and 4:44 Last Day on Earth, the humanism that lurked in Ferrara’s early exploitation-heavy movies began to assume center-stage, but in Siberia, it comes into full, earnest bloom. Its ambitious subject matter and audacious form suggest Ferrara is digging his heels in on this approach, marking him as less willing than ever to court easy commercial projects or settle into middle-aged complacency. He may no longer be making the kind of taboo-smashing cinema on which he built his name, but in terms of emotional daring, Abel Ferrara is still pushing boundaries.

Related Topics: , , ,

Farah Cheded is a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects. Outside of FSR, she can be found having epiphanies about Martin Scorsese movies here @AttractionF and reviewing Columbo episodes here.