When last we heard from Abel Ferrara, the semi-legendary cult director of “Bad Lieutenant” and “Ms. 45” was indulging himself, if not us, with “Tommaso” (2020). That film starred Willem Dafoe as a semi-legendary cult director who, when not giving vent to sexual and homicidal fantasies, was working on a film script set in the Arctic. Since everything else in “Tommaso” was autobiographical, it follows that “Siberia,” the new Ferrara film landing on digital platforms, was that script.
It’s a better movie, too, if much more aggressively surreal. While the late-life crisis of “Tommaso” was rendered as urban realism, “Siberia” seems to take place entirely in the landscapes of its maker’s mind — a dream journey with moments of real power and just as many pretensions. Dafoe is once again cast as the filmmaker’s stand-in, here called Clint and tending a remote roadhouse high above the Arctic Circle. His visitors include a grizzled Inuit hunter (Laurent Arnatsiaq), an elderly Russian woman (Valentina Rozumenko), and a pregnant beauty (Cristina Chiriac, the director’s wife) who cryptically offers herself to Clint.
From there, “Siberia” lifts off into a gnomic journey across the tundra, into caves, and through desert sands, Clint crossing paths with mysterious characters — the always welcome Simon McBurney as “the Magician,” for one — and figures from his past. These include an angry ex-wife (Dounia Sichov), a neglected young son (played by Ferrara’s daughter Anna), and a mournful mother (Trish Osmond), whose love Clint once pushed away. The only constant companions on this psychic trek are a handful of sled dogs, beautiful and remote.
Dafoe throws himself into the maelstrom with the grim purpose of an actor steeped in avant-garde theater; his face has never seemed more troubled or more carved from granite. From time to time, “Siberia” erupts into spurts of the horrific violence for which Ferrara is known, with a death camp sequence particularly disturbing. Elsewhere, the director’s, ah, issues with women are squeamishly dramatized via demon cave succubi (Stella Pecollo) and a procession of attractive young actresses baring their breasts for Clint. Ferrara has been fashioning politically incorrect imagery since before the phrase was coined, and, nearing 70, he’s not about to stop now.
What he seems to be doing, with this film and the one preceding it, is taking stock of a rough, fully lived life with all of its hedonistic impulses, cock-ups, and regrets. “Siberia” is a Freudian wallow made by a New York street fighter of a Fellini, and it is nothing if not authentic in its stress-fractured machismo. “What can you tell me?” Clint asks the Magician, who answers, “That there is nothing to tell.” Oy vey and over and out, but your response, or mine, has always been immaterial to this filmmaker. “Siberia” is a movie made for an audience of one. If anyone has earned that right, it’s Ferrara.
Directed by Abel Ferrara. Written by Ferrara and Christ Zois. Starring Willem Dafoe. Available on demand. 90 minutes. R (strong sexual content, graphic nudity, some disturbing violence, bloody images)