I finally got around to watching Stalker (dir Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979) and found it to be beautiful and strangely gripping.
This is a story of a guide, the eponymous Stalker (played by Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) who takes people into a forbidden zone near an unnamed city. The zone seems to be sentient and within it is a room where visitors can apparently find the answers to their dreams. The journey there is long and perilous and full of mysteries.
The Stalker – an obsessive, rather pathetic, figure - is guiding two strangers into the zone and most of the action seems to take place in one day. The first of the stalker’s customers is Writer (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) – irrational, emotional, garrulous. He believes in the power of art but has lost his inspiration. And his hat. The second character is Professor (Nikolay Grinko) – a scientist who is rational, logical, calm. He has a bobble hat. All three men have very different philosophies and this allows the film to explore many conflicts but primarily that of cynicism versus faith.
This is a slow film with minimal cuts, which really pulls the viewer in to join in the contemplation of the meaning of it all. It is a story of fears, escape and of hope but one where no one is really sure what they want at the end of their journey.
Tarkovsky does not tell us what to think but lets the dialogue and imagery co-exist beautifully to create a mesmeric adventure. He uses colour and its absence carefully. The scenes outside the zone are in a grimy metallic sepia with lots of contrast. Inside the zone is green and lush but never quite welcoming. We sense a life force – a vibration throughout - something otherworldly. It is menacing but never really terrifying, despite of the Stalkers warnings.
Nature has reclaimed the zone, with tanks overgrown with grass being the most obvious example of this. We can sense the delight for our protagonist rolling in the grass and the dew – he doesn’t even flinch when a tiny, no doubt ticklish, caterpillar (symbolic?) hunches its way along his finger.
The camera lingers over submerged reminders of the outside world – lots of tiles (not sure if this is symbolic or just typical of Russian décor?), coins, bottles, syringes, guns, religious icons, the Professor’s disarmed bomb, oil…
Most of the scenes are visually stunning. Perfect composition and incredible depth to the shots – leading our eye into the journey.
Water is a strong theme throughout - in some cases clear and fresh (life-giving) and in others stagnant and polluted. The rain scene shot from the POV of inside The Room towards the end is a refreshing relief.
There is also a crown of thorns (worn by Writer not Stalker though) and lots of fish plus maybe a lot of other biblical references which I missed.
At the end of the film, Tarkovsky uses colour outside the zone – perhaps implying that the Stalker has broken through his obsession with the room? We see him carrying his daughter and leading the way for his wife as they walk home, rather than his customers.
The black dog appears at the point when the men are really starting to contemplate their lives, as they rest in the swamp. It stays with them and comes out of the zone with the Stalker.
The final scene is of the daughter moving three jars/glasses along a table with telekinesis (she is one of the zone’s so-called mutant children). She pushes one of them off the end of the table and it (presumably) breaks on the floor. Is this symbolic of the three men with the falling one being her father?
I am also intrigued by the nuts/bandages that Stalker throws ahead and did I miss it or do we never get an explanation of why Porcupine is so called?
This complex film is apocalyptic but surprisingly hypnotic and I am sure it will stay with me for a long time. I am looking forward to reading Geoff Dyer’s Zona (“a book about a Film about a Journey to a Room”) and contemplating this elliptical masterpiece further.