Film Review: Stalker
Stalker (1979) Director Andrei Tarkovsky
Written by Belle McIntyre
This strange and unsettling post-apocalyptic tale is simultaneously bleak and profoundly beautiful. The location is an unidentified area of Russia. The “real” world, a run-down rust belt port town is depicted in yellow/sepia tones which gives it an eerie vintage beauty. This starkly contrasts with the Zone, a heavily guarded area surrounded by high fences, checkpoints and armed soldiers which resembles the site of a nuclear disaster. Abandoned crumbling industrial structures are situated in a degraded landscape with strange pools of toxic-looking water and rubble of all descriptions. (Chernobyl comes to mind, although the film was made before that event). Unexpectedly, the Zone which is deserted by humans, has been reclaimed by nature, which is thriving and overgrowing the land and the rubble, is filmed in color. There are even fish, birds and a dog.
The Stalker of the title is not the sinister character which the word suggests. Actually he is the innocent, pure-hearted center of the story. There is much which is left unexplained, so we do not know how this fellow has come to be one of the only people familiar enough with the Zone to be able to guide people into and out of it. We do learn that he was mentored by someone, known as Porcupine, a suicide, and only referenced in the past tense. We know nothing of the history or mythology of the Zone except that there is a Room in a bunker which will reward those who enter with the fulfillment of their deepest desires. If that makes it sound like some sweet fairy tale, or a spiritual pilgrimage - it emphatically is not. But it is an existential metaphor for faith and the human condition.
The opening scenes are domestic in a rustic country home with soft morning light illuminating a couple and a young girl all sleeping. The camera slowly tracks over their faces, the bedcovers, the textures of the walls, and takes in the small details of this humble setting with all of the attention of a Vermeer. It is sublimely beautiful. This is the home of the Stalker, prior to setting out on his mission to escort two people into the Zone. His wife hates that he does this as it is very dangerous and illegal. She is fearful for him. But he believes in this work.
The two characters who have signed on to travel to the zone, guided by the Stalker are cynical and worldly, known only as the Scientist and the Writer and their motives are initially unclear. This is the set up for a trip into a bizarre DMZ for which they have paid handsomely. Once they get inside the Zone, Stalker explains that the landscape is menacing, unpredictable and mutable and that it is dangerous to go in a straight line to the Room. This entails all sorts of convoluted tactics to “read” the landscape, of which the two travelers are totally skeptical, as they are guided through tunnels and over rocky outcroppings and strange powdery dunes. There is much bickering among the three of them as the stress level increases. They need to be out of the Zone before night fall. The Scientist and the Writer only speak in metaphysical and philosophical terms, while Stalker deals in practical superstition. The dynamic is enthralling as they drag themselves through the rough, menacing terrain.
Once they finally get to the Room, things get positively Stoppard-esque (as in Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead). Their real motivations are revealed which are quite dramatic and totally unexpected and things escalate into volatility. The surreal scene which follows as they decline to go in the Room feels like an ending. What follows feels like a coda even though it bookends the opening scenes and rounds out the whole. We find the three men back at the bar where they first met back in the“real” sepia world. They have all been through the wringer and look much the worse for wear.
Stalker’s wife and crippled daughter are there to meet him and the wife expresses her wish to visit the Room. But Stalker has lost his faith. The cynicism of the Writer and Scientist and the realization of their lack of belief has delegitimized the Room for him and therefore eradicated his sense of purpose. This man who has believed in his task as a calling finds himself bereft and has a heartbreaking moment as he confesses to his wife that he does not want to take her there in case it fails. It is unclear what his future holds.
The last scene is one of extraordinary languid beauty as the camera lingers on the face of the mute daughter as she reads from a romantic novel and then puts her head down on a table and she appears to cause glasses move across it by looking at them. Dust motes float across the screen and it is mesmerizing. I cannot think when I have ever seen more beautiful art direction and cinematography. Every frame is worthy as a still photograph. The soundtrack is mostly the articulated sounds of each scene - trains, footsteps, crunching rubble, drops of water or rain which sometimes morphs into something akin to music or percussion or occasionally ominous sounds. It is three fully engaging hours during which the whole theatre sat totally still without a fidget or a sound. You won’t soon forget this one.