1979 // Soviet Union // Andrei Tarkovsky
Criterion Collection (LINK)
It’s weird to say I absolutely love Stalker (I would say it’s one of my top 10 favorite films of all time) even it’s utterly beyond my logical comprehension. I have watched Stalker three times, each time my confusion grows and thickens along with my appreciation. Like reading a poem and just rides along with its rhythm, like befriending a stranger who speaks in a foreign language I can’t articulate, like crossing a giant meadow obscured by fog and flooded in water, like solving a puzzle that has no end, my rawest emotion is provoked and expanded to the purest essence.
The thing I’m most certain is I’m mesmerised by the beauty of the images, the exquisiteness of the ‘corrupted’ nature and the decayed civilization in the Zone. The long takes (there are 142 shots in 161 minutes) are hypnotizing, I’m transposed into the ecstatic zone by the tranquil and ascetic camera movement. The haunting soundtrack by Eduard Artemyev aptly encapsulated an otherworldliness that constantly stirred my senses. It’s one of the ‘purest’ cinematic experience, along with The Tree of Life (2011), that I have ever experienced, the enjoyment of dislocated in the realm of cinematic magic.
The story, if one really needs to summarize, is both confusing and straightforward. Freely adapted from the novel by the Strugatsky brothers – The Roadside Picnic, the film is filled with various narrative digressions which works on temporal and spatial levels. Religious symbolism is displayed, Arseni Tarkovsky’s poem is recited, metaphysical question is raised, the film makes use of an abnormal space called the Zone for transgressive revelation. A quotation from a fictional Nobel laureate immediately after the opening credits explains the existence of the Zone. Like the planet Solaris in Solaris (1972), it’s a mysterious site defying human reason and logic, it possesses autonomy and modifies itself according to the inner state of the inhabited character.
It’s a mystified consciousness with indomitable power, inside there are concrete tunnels, deserted railway, ramshackle factories and building, a place where civilization is engulfed by mud and contaminated water. Supposedly there are no living human, except for those who seeks to realise their innermost desire by reaching the Wish Room in the Zone, accompanied by Stalker who acts as a tour guide. There are numerous death traps during the journey which are intangible and beyond logical comprehension.
The film itself is circular in structure, it’s bookended by the interior of the apartment of the Stalker (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky), the bar serves as both the starting and end point of their venture inside the Zone which constitutes the majority and the central part of the film. The monochromatic photography in the normal reality is transitioned to color once they are inside the realm of the Zone, like The Wizard of Oz (1939), except the tone of the Zone is grimmer and bleaker. Stalker’s clients of the trip are named as the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko), each has different purposes in reaching the Wish Room in risking their life.
Names are unimportant in the film, they are reduced to abstraction, at one point Stalker retells the Emmaus story from Luke’s Gospel in a delirious manner, the name of Jesus and his follower are left out. The direct reference to Christianity becomes blurred and dislocated, it is also applicable to the preceding Revelation sequence in which a tracking shot follows a shallow pool with scattered objects from above, accompanied with the voice of Stalker’s wife (Alisa Freindlikh) reciting the text of Revelation. Unless you are extremely familiar with the texts, the context of both monologues are out of recognition and interpretation, or else one could take it almost like a prayer, a moment of tranquility upon the continuous shots of shifting position and location of the characters.
The linear plot breaks into temporal displacement once they enters the ‘dry tunnel,’ a looped passage ironically consists of waterfalls and flooded floor. From that point on the film becomes inexplicable in terms of logic and rational cause-and-effect relationship. Like the final act in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) but less allegorical and more empathetic. Stalker and his pals underwent the ‘meat grinder’ trap tunnel and enters a room with sand hillocks inside, suddenly a throwing screw in slow motion and blinding flash of light are shown, two flights of a bird, one of which is interrupted halfway like an illusion, is displayed. Any attempt in interpretation is fruitless, like their final decision of not entering the Wish Room at the end, I choose to leave the meaning behind, let the obscurity mystified my viewing experience.
Stalker is more a spiritual guide than a tour guide alone, he’s also the holy fool who guides us through the film. His value of existence depends on his relationship with the Zone, even though his neurotic guidance for his fellow travelers ultimately results in nothing but sense of worthlessness. His daughter Monkey (Natasha Abramova) pays the price for his father being a Stalker by born disabled, but the Zone rewards her with supernatural power. The final sequence, photographed in full color inside Stalker’s previously monochromatic apartment, exhibits her power of drifting objects on table with an intense gaze, the sense of movement is contrasted with the overall static image. It’s that piercing gaze that confirms how one should watch Stalker, an intense scrutiny on the visual and a contemplation of the underlining subtexts by removing the desire of logic and reasoning, let the film speaks to you telepathically by its meticulous texture and aesthetic. I believe I have only touched the superficial layer of Stalker here, and I’m glad for that as every subsequent viewing would akin to new exploration to me.