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With Siberia (2020) renegade auteur Abel Ferrara returns too familiar ground. The director continues to obsess over the means by which regret and guilt can fracture the human spirit. Clint (Willem Dafoe) is another surrogate for Ferrara who unpacks his life’s greatest failures and compromises publicly on screen. In the last twenty years or so Abel Ferrara has moved away from making subtly personal genre pictures to a wholly confessional cinema.

Clint is an older middle-aged man who has completely isolated, or insulated, himself in a remote region of Siberia. Here he is always, to some extent, alone. No one else speaks English and Clint doesn’t seem inclined to learn Russian. In this type of self induced isolation it’s inevitable that one is going to turn in on one’s self. The ever critical mind’s eye will set its gaze on the past; the life lived. Clint does just this. His mind gives way to hallucinations that set him off on a dog sled to a cave where he will ultimately confront himself.

Ferrara’s confrontation with his own mortality is the central theme of Siberia. In a series of elliptically structured dream sequences, full of surreal Fellini-esque images, Clint reckons with his role as a son, a brother, a father, and a husband. It’s clear that the emotional work of Clint’s existence has never been entirely committed. In scenes of sex and dancing to Del Shannon Ferrara suggests that Clint’s only way to escape atonement and self-flagellation is through physical pleasure.

If to live is partake of sex and dancing, then to die is to surrender to regret; to those thoughts which inhibit the soul from living and loving. These dual concepts mirror the notions at the heart of Ferrara’s first feature The Driller Killer (1979). The Driller Killer focused on the destructive and abstractly violent aspect of the creative process while Siberia suggests that creativity, or living, begins in the body then the mind. Bodies in the films of Abel Ferrara are always in danger of being corrupted or being compromised. Clint’s body is struck at by his mind just as Reno’s mind strikes at the bodies of his victims, or art.

Siberia isn’t affecting because of these formal qualities of which Ferrara is a master. The emotional core of Siberia is in Dafoe’s performance as Clint, Clint’s father, and Clint’s brother. Dafoe subtly varies each performance, sprinkling in details that give the characters a legitimate authenticity. Just the way that Dafoe smiles and says the word “fishing” to his son reveals such a deep well of paternal love. Of the six films that Ferrara has made with Dafoe, Siberia boasts the actor’s greatest performance thus far.

The fact that Siberia is so dense with dreamy images and abstract concepts has made the film largely inaccessible to most. It’s Ferrara’s most deeply personal and obscure film to date and really only for those familiar with the bulk of the director’s work. Siberia, even if it’s largely misunderstood, nonetheless is a testament to Ferrara’s continued relevancy and cinematic genius.