My experience with non-English-language cinema was still very shallow when I first took the plunge into the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. It was July of 2012. Picking out five films as an introductory survey, in this case, meant getting through a large portion of the director’s total output. I’ve since caught up with almost everything else, except for a 45-minute student film and the hour-long documentary Tempo di Viaggio. In that first pass, the last film I saw was Stalker, the theologically fraught science-fiction parable that was the last movie its director made in the Soviet Union. As with the other four masterworks I watched in 2012, Stalker amazed me, but I couldn’t quite sync myself up with it. The film’s longueurs, though not nearly as prolonged and emphatic as in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, still left me with the impression of having performed an exercise more than having enjoyed a film. Still, I gladly marked Stalker (as well as Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublev and The Mirror) as one to revisit. Five years and one month later, I had a breakthrough of sorts with Tarkovsky. His final film, The Sacrifice, worked wonders on me, and I was eager to take another look at one of the earlier films to see if I was truly on his wavelength at last.
Tarkovsky made movies on his own terms, and he had the virtuosity to make the choice clear: accept those terms and reach new aesthetic heights, or flounder. Along those lines, the opening of Stalker is among the most awesome he ever created. A still, silent marvel, it asks the audience simply to drink in the dampness, shadow and decay of its locations, a hypnotically slow-moving camera gradually pulling the curtain back. Chromatically, Stalker follows the same visual strategy as The Wizard of Oz, its early scenes in sepia tone and its magical midsection in color, but this confluence seems more a curiosity than a cross-cultural statement. While the journey into “the Zone” promises immeasurable rewards for the three main characters, they’re just as anxious and wary in the magical place as they are in the dreary, post-apocalyptic police state they call home. The Zone is every bit as damp, in addition to being dotted with corpses and rusty weapons. The difference is that the potential threats are more metaphysical, and perhaps even indescribable.
To categorize Stalker as “science fiction” is somewhat insufficient. It has no interest in specific technologies or speculation. But it does share a philosophical bent with that genre, using its premise as the fulcrum to guide its allegorical search. The Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky), the Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko), in addition to their surface quest to escape what had become a hopeless life, are wrestling with nothing less than the possibility of religious faith in the modern world. Tarkovsky’s Orthodox Christian perspective comes through clearly, with references to Belshazzar’s Feast, the Road to Emmaus, and the visions of the Book of Revelation, along with soulful recitations of poems by Arseny Tarkovsky (the director’s father). When they reach the innermost room of the Zone, the Writer and the Professor will each be granted his deepest desire — a fantasy scenario that morphs into a picture of salvation. As the Stalker so beautifully puts it, this offer is extended not to good people or bad people, but unhappy people, people who recognize the absence of hope in their lives. The script explores the men’s intellectual doubts and fears about this promise, culminating in the rug-pulling epiphany that to express one’s deepest desire is to expose oneself fully.
When considering a story as an allegory, it’s tempting to obsess over cracking the code at the expense of what’s literally happening on screen. But Stalker offers a lot more than just verbal ideas, and its characters always feel real. The Writer and the Professor engage in some amusing insult matches of their own before uniting in secularized skepticism. The Stalker, while obviously capable as a guide, pointing out all the hazards of the Zone, embarks on his task with trepidation and awe. If the Zone isn’t a spiritual place, if it’s a nuclear wasteland or a landing ground for extra-terrestrials or whatever you like, the perils of inexplicably shifting landscapes and dark tunnels are universally understood. With a slowly developing narrative such as this, it’s the atmosphere that grabs you — those pungent sewers, flowing grasses, the clack-clack of trains. And there are emotionally dramatic turns even without much action. The Stalker is heartened that he chose the right men for this quest, but soon he too will have reason to doubt.
There are a great many lovely thoughts in this film, and my enthusiasm during the opening scenes never deteriorates very much. However, I find myself not quite ready to embrace it fully. My disappointment in myself is tempered by the hope that a truly transcendent experience with Stalker still awaits me someday. After two viewings, though, I can’t be sure it will happen. The environments that Tarkovsky found so conducive to his thinking just don’t have the same magnetism for me. The iconic room filled with sand dunes doesn’t arouse any particular wonder (although the long silence when the rock is dropped down the well is a masterstroke). There’s a hole that opens in the pit of my stomach upon contemplation of this film. My appreciation is still mostly limited to the realm of ideas. But that appreciation remains vast. Stalker is a formidable work of art, one of the best in the entire post-Enlightenment era to proclaim a Christian ethos. Even if I never love it, I will most certainly give it a few more looks.