Abel Ferrara’s Siberia opens in the sedate register of many of his recent films, introducing the protagonist, Clint (Willem Dafoe), via a voiceover recollection of childhood trips to the tundra of northern Canada where he and his father would briefly reside among indigenous peoples and endure the harsh temperatures in ways as harrowing as they were escapist. We then see Clint as a man in late-middle age and running a bar in a cabin at the foot of a Siberian mountain covered in snow and mist. Not fluent in the local dialects, Clint can only gesture at bottles when serving local babushkas or tribesmen, though like the tranquil and open quality that pervades the director’s late efforts like 4:44 The Last Day on Earth or Tommaso, there’s a strong belief in people’s ability to make connections despite barriers in an unusual show of warmth for such a legendarily irascible filmmaker.

Soon, however, the film unspools, sinking into Clint’s mental space as his daily activities, recollections and flights of fancy start to blur. Instead of a traditional plot, Ferrara follows the erratic trajectory of Clint’s reveries, bridging unlike moments like the man serving a customer at his bar and him returning home. At times, Ferrara even employs some jump scares in the form of sudden cuts to a bear attacking Clint in his home, or the sounds of gunshots and screams that blare just when the film is at its quietest. In one segment, reality is thrown out the window when Clint and his huskies abruptly find themselves transplanted from the frigid Russian wilderness to an arid, sweltering desert and, eventually, an idyllic, verdant garden where Clint converses with a magician (Simon McBurney) about the relationship between black arts and science. The haphazard, antilinear approach induces confusion, but it also breaks down the barriers between the viewer and the character.

Ferrara has cited a number of cinematic influences over the years ranging from F.W. Murnau to Pasolini, but the closest point of reference here may be Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Both films feature protagonists effectively narrating their memories while getting lost in them, distracted by their own subconscious as father figures loom large with rage and angst while women appear as maternal figures. (Ferrara, unlike Malick, also sees women sexually, embracing the Oedipal insinuations of sex, pregnancy, and regression fantasies that existed only in the periphery of Malick’s magnum opus.) Equally indebted to traditionalists and modernists, Ferrara can maintain a languid, gorgeous sense of composition even as he regularly employs handheld cameras for POV shots and form-shattering editing to make unnerving, if playful, stream-of-consciousness associations.

The film sinks deeper and deeper into its psychological and philosophical landscape, going so far as to invoke Plato’s cave as Clint attempts to act out a displaced return to the womb by entering a cavern in search of himself. In the process, Ferrara’s unpredictability takes over. In one scene, Dafoe has an argument with a twisted reflection of himself in a pool of water, and later he will have a more Freudian confrontation with his father, also played by Dafoe. Elsewhere, he comforts a grotesquely bloodied and dying figure with surprising tenderness, nestling with the bloated and matted person like a parent. Riding his sled toward the cave, Clint witnesses a procession of men being stripped and executed by a gang of assailants as if the man, a foreigner in Russia, were somehow witnessing the country’s grim history as a piece of his own memory.

In his own way, Ferrara has always been an expressionist and impressionist on the order of Scorsese, albeit forever tethered to the economy demanded of low budgets that Scorsese left behind long ago. What makes the filmmaker so fascinating (or, depending on your viewpoint, frustrating) is that he operates independently of the kinds of metaphor and symbolism that even great artists use as signposts to clarify the purpose of their aesthetics, thus making immersion into his characters’ psychological and social milieux the end and not the means. Here, with little more than a cabin and the forbidding surrounding landscape, Ferrara uses the isolation to explore the contours of Clint’s mind. The “point,” as it were, is simply to exist alongside Clint as he reacts to his spirit journey, sharing in his bafflement as much as his gradual illumination. Mostly devoid of music, the film tips its hand to its demented logic in the way Del Shannon’s golden oldie “Runaway” can play on the radio in one scene and, minutes later, Clint can round a corner and find himself at a death metal basement gig.

In much the same way that The Tree of Life revealed an overriding narrative arc only in its final moments, which snapped its cosmic sense of memory into focus with an endpoint of a man coming to peace with himself, Siberia eventually gives shape to its ostensibly random barrage of images, revealing an underlying structure that was there all along. In cinephilic circles, it is not uncommon to see reference to the Italian director Roberto Rossellini’s famous remark about Charlie Chaplin’s politically anguished, comically lacerating A King in New York, that it was the “work of a free man.” Siberia is such a film, a celebration of creativity and fantasy that draws as much inspiration from the horrors of existence as its primal pleasures. Late in the film, Clint sits at his dinner table and briefly plays with horse and cowboy figurines, making childlike sound effects of whinnying and trotting before hearing the sound of a real horse and being drawn to a hallucinatory sight of a rider approaching in the night. In an instant, his innocent play manifests, and it marks the closest thing the film has to a clear thesis in celebrating how the artist manifests their imagination. Only in confronting all of it can an artist say anything worth hearing, and only by witnessing it can the rest of us find any meaning in either art or our own lives.

The most radical formal and narrative experiment of Abel Ferrara’s strange career, Siberia is another late-career triumph for one of America’s greatest living directors.
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