Ferrara is determinedly consistent in his devotion to his core visions, and as hungry as ever to discover new ways to express them.”
By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
At some point over the last decade, my initially half-jokingly insistence that Abel Ferrara had become the thinking person’s Lars Von Trier became less glibly provocative and more a deeply held statement of fact. These one-time enfant terribles of cinema – only five years apart in age – have each forged their own individual paths marked as much by their undeniable talent as their near-magnetic pull for controversy, be it in relation to their films themselves or what might be described somewhat understatedly as their ‘colorful’ personalities. We could of course dig deeper into their respective filmographies to map a cartography of where their careers have overlapped; both, most obviously, have always demonstrated a curious attraction to genre, frequently approaching it as a bull to a red flag that ignites often explosively experimental creative forces within them. Between them, Ferrara and Von Trier have worked across melodrama, rape-revenge film, horror, crime, documentary, and pornography.
But for me at least, in terms of my own experience as a spectator, I was first struck by the relationship between these two directors in 2011 when they released Melancholia and 4:44: Last Day on Earth. Von Trier’s former debuted at the Cannes Films Festival that May to instant acclaim, while Ferrara’s latter – while premiering at Venice only a few months later – made little of the splash of Von Trier’s similarly themed film. Both films, at their core, concern fundamentally the same thing: the end of the world is coming, and soon. Each centres on characters coming face to face with the reality of their circumstances, presenting a profound, compelling reflection of life, mortality and other equally hefty philosophical questions around the very state of being. While other critics have had no problem placing these two films in a qualitative death match, to me this feels largely to miss the point of what makes the timing of these films so curious and – more importantly – the value in considering the differences in approaches to such similar material by ostensibly very different filmmakers. What struck me then – just as it strikes me now – isn’t that one is necessarily ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the other, but just how fundamentally restrained Ferrara’s film is in comparison with Von Trier’s. “Restraint” is perhaps not a word that instantly leaps out of the critical tool kit when approaching the words of Abel Ferrara, but the film marks a significant shift in his filmography, made on the back of a trilogy of frankly brilliant feature-length documentaries – Chelsea on the Rocks (2008), Napoli Napoli Napoli (2009), and Mulberry St. (2010).
For a filmmaker whose work tonally has always seemed to lean in quite comfortably to being in a state of flux, this period in particular feels like it marked a notable shift in Ferrara’s career. After 4:44 Last Day on Earth would come a duet of films that might ostensibly fall under a loose ‘biopic’ umbrella; the Gérard Depardieu fronted Welcome to New York (2014) inspired by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and of course the fruition of his long-held passion project Pasolini that same year, starring long-term collaborator Willem Dafoe in a role that, at one stage, Ferrara considered casting the late Zoë Lund in before her tragic death in 1999. It’s a personal friendship that has manifested on screen in an hugely productive collaborative relationship that appears to transcend traditional artist/muse power dynamics, stemming from 1998’s New Rose Hotel. Not only has Ferrara’s best work been that in which he has worked closely with Dafoe, but it’s also produced some of Dafoe’s strongest (although obviously not as highly publicized) work during this period: to New Rose Hotel, 4:44 Last Day on Earth, and Pasolini we can add Go Go Tales (2007) and, more recently, Tommasso (2019) and Siberia (2020).
Hardly shy in its autobiographical aspect, Tommaso reveals an extraordinary maturity and capacity for self-reflection on Ferrara’s part that largely hinged on Dafoe’s ability to bring his complex title character to life. Like Ferrara himself, Tommaso is an American filmmaker who has moved to Rome and is struggling to find a balance between his new life as a wholesome family man with a young wife and child (played by the director’s own wife, Cristina Chiriac, and their daughter Anna, no less) with his past in the United States on both a personal and professional level. This is no romanticized fairy tale idealism here, and with Dafoe at the helm, we in many ways are asked to pay witness to the physical and emotional labor at stake when someone tries to change their life in such a dramatic way.
These quasi-autobiographical flourishes that marked Tommaso most immediately upon its release at Cannes in 2019 would find a most direct parallel in Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, which made its international debut at the same festival. Another masterwork by a one-time cinematic bad boy, like Tommaso, Pain and Glory too hinges on a heavy dose of self-reflection driven by a powerful alliance with another famous long-time collaborator (in Almodóvar’s case, Antonio Banderas). But it is Ferrara’s 2020 feature Siberia that returns me most directly to the somewhat shallow point of comparison with which this essay began: that of Lars Von Trier. Competing for a Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in February this year, Siberia fluked what in 2020 has become the rare gift of a big cinema premiere for his feature before much of the world’s cinemas shut down due to COVID-19 and a vast majority of film festivals moved to an online screening model. The latter was the context within which I was able to stream the film via Australia’s Revelation International Film Festival.
Ferrara’s film is certainly not the only movie this year to suffer from the shift from a big screen festival roll out to the distinctly less spectacular forum of the laptop, mobile phone screen, or domestic home’s television set. But Ferrara has not exactly been blessed by the distribution angels over the last couple of decades anyway, so those of us with a taste for his films are already well well trained to expect them to lie hidden in the nooks and crannies, rather than waiting for them to roll up on our doorstep via more mainstream distribution channels. Streaming Siberia at home, to state the obvious, is far from the ideal scenario to view this lush experimental journey into the darkness of Dafoe’s protagonist’s inner soul, but if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s be grateful for small blessings.
To suggest that Siberia is ‘Von Trier-esque’ grossly misrepresents my suggestion that Ferrara has in large part transcended the accomplishments of the Danish filmmaker; yes, like the famous ‘chaos reigns’ fox from Antichrist (2009), Siberia too has a highly memorable talking animal, but aside from that I have no intention of drawing parallels in style, tone, or broader motivation. Rather, however, it is something bigger that makes me bring these two filmmakers together in this way: while Von Trier still seems focused with recapturing the ‘shock and awe’ notoriety in films of arguably escalating extremity such as Nymphomaniac (2013) and The House that Jack Built (2018) – the latter of which, in the spirit of transparency, I admire a great deal – Ferrara simply appears to have moved on from the desire to provoke in the same way. Ferrara’s most recent oeuvre is marked by something altogether new.
Returning to my earlier point, then, I first sensed this with 4:44 Last Day on Earth when I realized in a lightning bolt moment that it was Ferrara who had made the more reflective, more subtle, more introspective film of the pair. Again, I emphasize this is not a qualitative judgement and I make no reductive claim here that Ferrara’s film is ‘better’ than Melancholia, only that tonally it reveals a much more restrained filmmaker working behind the camera, with the once-signature excesses that marked much of his earlier work almost wholly reigned in. Siberia is not lacking in flashes of striking visual imagery and even stylistic excesses that are the cornerstones of earlier masterpieces like Driller Killer (1979) or Ms. 45 (1981), but they do not manifest in the same way; to put it bluntly, here we see Dafoe kiss a pregnant woman’s belly where once we saw Asia Argento tongue-kiss a Rottweiler in Go Go Tales.
As far as plot goes – and the film is clearly not a narrative-driven project by any means – Siberia follows Ferrara’s protagonist Clint, a man who has left the west to run a crude run-down bar in snow-bound Siberia where he is one of the few to speak English. Travelling through the freezing location of the film’s title, the movie plays out as a series of flashbacks which manifest as little memory-vignettes as Clint recalls key incidents from across his life. These structure the film and allow Ferrara’s meta-philosophical reflections on memory, love, and place to take shape.
Stylistically the film is marked by sharp, sudden spikes of sensory and at times literal violence, and the jolts we experience as an audience mark the ups and downs of the rough journey Clint’s memories walk us through. He recalls his childhood, ex partners, ex lovers, his own children, and other significant figures in his life not in a framework that makes any real spatial sense, but rather plots a detailed and often deeply nuanced emotional cartography. Co-written by another long-term collaborator Christ Zois, with whom Ferrara worked with on The Blackout (1997), New Rose Hotel, Chelsea on the Rocks and Welcome to New York, the striking high contrast photography that is so central to the creation of the film’s mood is too the result of another Ferrara regular, Stefano Falivene, who worked in the same capacity on Pasolini. But aside from Dafoe, it is the extraordinary score by Joe Delia that brings the most frenetic energy to Siberia, marking a professional collaboration that began in 1976 with Ferrara’s foray into hardcore pornography, 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy, and continued through many of the director’s most iconic films.
Siberia is surely not for everyone, and even to Ferrara loyalists such as myself it would be disingenuous to claim perfection. But one thing Ferrara has always seemed to communicate in his films – whether intentional or not – is that energy, passion, electricity; these are the things that are more important to great than objectively clinical precision. These are the things that technique should capture and serve, not vice versa; for Ferrara, it’s never art for arts sake, but always passion for passion’s sake. Ferrara hasn’t lost his wildness, but as he has matured as an artist he has found a wholly new cinematic language to further communicate that energy that, frankly, I don’t feel myself on a personal level at least that Von Trier has yet to quite fully achieve. Siberia captures precisely what it is that makes Ferrara’s films so electrifying: while not always coherent, he is determinedly consistent in his devotion to his core visions, and as hungry as ever to discover new ways to express them.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has written six books on cult, horror and exploitation film including Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the Bram Stoker Award nominated Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019), and the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). Alexandra is a board member of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a programmer at Fantastic Fest, the largest genre film festival in the United States. Her most recent book is 1000 Women in Horror: 1895-2018 (BearManor Media, 2020).