Monday, November 8, 2010

Stalker (1979)

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Country: Soviet Union

Stalker is the fifth of only seven feature films master filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky made during his life. It represents one of many instances in which he used science fiction elements - other notable examples include 1972's Solaris, which is mostly set on a space station near a strange planet, and 1986's The Sacrifice, which is driven by the concepts of World War III and the end of all life on Earth. If one compares Solaris and Stalker, his two most sci-fi-oriented works, the latter seems more ambitious and transcendent, moving beyond the older film's confining sets and head-on (though still often cryptic) examinations of memory and identity. Instead, Stalker is a film structured around a spiritual quest, and consequently allows more room for open interpretations, metaphors and meditations on various subjects, with the characters' journey, as with most narrative journeys, having just as much to do with self-discovery as actual distances covered.

Stalker opens in a drab, depressing, sepia-toned world - unmistakably a post-apocalyptic dystopia. In this world, we learn that something - maybe a meteor, maybe an alien presence, though what it actually is remains ambiguous - reached Earth and affected an area  of land. Now fenced off and guarded by the authorities and referred to as the Zone, it is thought to contain at its center a mystical place simply called the Room that grants wishes - specifically, the one thing that a visitor wants more than anything else. Yet passage through the Zone is no easy matter, as it seems to possess a sentient awareness and protects itself from unwelcome visitors with terrible traps. Only certain specially-attuned people known as stalkers can bring people to the Room. The film follows one particular stalker (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) as he leaves his protesting wife (Alisa Frejndlikh) and their daughter (Natasha Abramova) behind to bring a scientist (Nikolai Grinko) and a writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) into the Zone so they may enter the Room and have their innermost desires.

Throughout Stalker, the titular character and his two companions choose to refer to themselves only by their titles. As a result, they often act as archetypes for their respective fields. Of the three of them, this is especially true of the writer, who frequently speaks of the nature of being a writer, the importance (or lack thereof) of writing and the often overwhelming role the audience plays in the life of a writer. As a still-budding writer myself, I found these monologues to be extremely insightful and wise, and the great Solonitsyn's passionate delivery made them all the more resonant. Anybody who has taken seriously the idea of creating a meaningful output through writing or making a living off of the craft and the whims of the public will see part of themselves in the writer.

The three men's journey into the Zone is completely enthralling for several reasons. As they head further into the strange, ominous landscape, the stalker tosses nuts with strips of cloth tied around them to ensure safety from traps and instructs the others to walk in certain directions. Along the way, tension and distrust forms between them as a result of ego, pride, greed and frayed patience. Only the stalker has a solid understanding of the true nature of the Zone, which often seems more like another character than a place - one who quietly schemes and plans to tear the men's unit apart with their own dark, savage impulses. Also of clear interest are the exact motives driving the scientist and the writer to the Room, creating fascinating new dilemmas once they are fully revealed.

The Zone itself significantly appears in color within the film - being one of many elements that have inspired astute comparisons between Stalker and The Wizard of Oz. Yet there are no neat yellow brick roads or quaint Munchkin dwellings in the Zone - it is an eerily quiet, desolate place filled with green overgrowth, wind, rain and flowing rivers. Here, Tarkovsky, who made use of scenes of nature like no other filmmaker, captures some of his strongest imagery based on the natural elements - particularly water, a regular motif of his. Through things like a sudden gust of wind or the arrival of a rain storm (not to mention the incredible music by Eduard Artemiev), the Zone seems to express itself in subtle, mysterious ways. Throughout it, there lie abandoned trucks and tanks, crooked power lines and discarded guns, syringes and bottles - the remnants of human civilization rendered in profoundly lyrical passages of pure cinema. Thus, the Zone is not just a strange, fantastical realm, but a looking glass through which Tarkovsky and his audience beholds and considers such subjects as war, religion, art, sin and the folly of man.

Such intimidating subjects are presented in a manner that is extremely hypnotic and stunning in its sheer beauty. Stalker is at once a philosophical adventure, a revealing examination of human desire and an exquisite work of film poetry. Sadly, the film is also highly significant for the tragedy it brought about to some of its makers: it is believed that Tarkovsky, Solonitsyn and Tarkovsky's wife Larisa all died from cancer that was initially acquired during the Stalker shoot from chemically contaminated locations in Estonia. When you watch the film knowing that it literally cost the lives of some of its key artists, there is undeniably a strange potency added to it and its concepts - especially the Zone, which one could almost imagine extending its wavering, toxic borders beyond the realm of fiction to affect the filmmakers themselves. Also greatly warranted is an appropriate sense of appreciation for Tarkovsky's sacrifice for his art - which, with a film as brilliant and haunting as Stalker, is not such a hard thing to summon.