Monday, 12 February 2007

Stalker (Soviet Union, 1979, Andrei Tarkovsky)

Few directors have been as concerned with the human condition as Andrei Tarkovsky. Despite regular state interference and surveillance of his work, he was able to introduce issues of spirituality and morality into his films, which were made for a supposedly atheist audience. His success in making unorthodox films in such a hostile era can possibly be explained by the fact that his films were never overtly political, but also that he expressed his religious ideas in a subtle and allegorical fashion.

Stalker follows Solaris in essentially acting as a fable dressed as a science-fiction feature. Stalker was loosely based on Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, but Tarkovsky was much more concerned with the philosophical and metaphysical elements of the novel than its science-fiction aspects. Like Solaris, the physical journey of the protagonist functions purely on a metaphorical level, exploring was the internal journey of the protagonist. As we noticed in Solaris, Kris Kelvin’s flight to explore the strange eponymous planet gives way to the exploration of his estranged relationships with his dead wife and his father. Stalker works on the same level.

The stalker is a guide who takes the willing to the ‘zone’, a desolate piece of wasteland cordoned off by the authorities, where it is believed a room there will grant wishes. Naturally the nature of the ‘zone’ is subject to rumour and speculation, but stories have been told of those who have visited the ‘zone’ and have been punished for their greed, because the ‘zone’ grants the ‘true’ wish rather than the ‘assumed’ wish (much like Solaris, the zone reads minds intuitively). The stalker is approached by a writer and a professor, who wish to visit the ‘zone’. The writer explains that he has lost inspiration, whilst the professor wishes to see the scientific significance and value of the area, though there is reason to suspect their motives.

Tarkovsky offers the brilliant, but simple visual conceit of filming the hometown of the ‘stalker’ in monochrome grey, and the ‘zone’ in dazzling colour, as if Tarkovsky is arguing that the ‘zone’ is a path towards enlightenment. The journey towards the ‘zone’ is slow and meticulously constructed, and provides the opportunity for the three protagonists to discuss their ideals and principles and engage in a philosophical debate. Tarkovsky’s sympathies would appear to reside with the stalker. The writer and professor are so convinced by the power of knowledge and truth that they leave no room in their hearts and minds for hope or finding enlightenment. The stalker himself claims that hope is “all people have got left on this earth”. Whilst the writer and the professor wish to discover the true nature of the ‘zone’, the stalker is aware this would rob people of their faith. It is simple and correct to interpret this as acting as a surrogate for religion. Is the journey to the ‘zone’ a journey towards faith, even towards God?

Stalker is Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, the full realisation of all the ideas he ever wished to commit to film. As is the case with every Tarkovsky film, there are arresting images that stun the viewer; most notably the final shot of the stalker’s daughter, described by the writer and the professor as a ‘victim of the zone’ recreating the slow and painful journey of the three adventurers though moving glasses on a table with her telekinetic powers. Stalker is a film brimming with ideas and humanistic concerns, and remains one of the most powerful films ever made.

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