Stalker ★★★★½

Boy did I pick one hell of an intro to Andrei Tarkovsky. Skillfully melding ruminations about the philosophies of rational thought versus belief, conscious and subconscious desire, the psychology of man, of the sense of fulfillment or lack thereof in regards to the psychology of mankind and how that plays into the concept of desire, and how such concepts as these can be fundamentally flawed and still yet lead to personal epiphanies or despondencies dependent on one’s dispositional makeup, Stalker weaves a complex labyrinth of story in order to fully engage these diegesic points and to explore them to their fullest extent. Mentally engaging almost to the point of taxation and yet visually lush and stunning the entire way through, Stalker must be seen in order to be truly believed.

     Set in an unnamed town within the USSR that is abutted against a special and dangerous region known as The Zone, Stalker follows the titular character, so named as he’s one of a select few people who have illegally guided people into The Zone in order to explore its dangers and wonders, as he takes two clients, known as The Writer and The Professor, into The Zone in order for them to use a phenomena known as The Room, a strange area that is rumored to grant one’s deepest held and most fervent desire; but the closer they get towards achieving their goal, the more the sense of uncertainty creeps in amongst them; will their desires truly be granted? Or will they be left with an unshakeable feeling of ideological annihilation?

     That ending was a joke utilizing foreshadowing, kids. Thank you, Alex Garland…

     Stalker is hard to assess, mainly due to the overwhelming ambiguity of it all; motivations aren’t directly addressed, and at best are merely alluded to, but in the same breath that’s also part of the appeal of the film, as one desires to learn more from our singularly termed characters almost as much as they themselves of one another. Also, when one thinks about it, the rampant ambiguity gives Tarkovsky a virgin canvas with which he can utilize to his fullest creative extent, daubing it and our imaginations with the full spectrum of philosophical, psychological and theoretical colors at his command. It’s almost as if Tarkovsky rejects artistic rationality in favor of pure elemental submersion, languidly doling out the story alongside healthy dollops of iconographic and metaphoric insinuations in order to stimulate the viewer into injection and immersion into the story itself in order to answer the questions the film raises themselves without any real assurance they’ll arrive at an answer at all. It’s a stylistically bold choice to implement, one that runs the risk of alienating portions of one’s viewing audience, but Tarkovsky’s confidence in his vision and craft here alleviate such doubts, even if we don’t quite understand ourselves watching this the first (or fiftieth) time around. The film paints an extremely faint line of delineation between frustration and elegance in the way it portrays its metaphorical messages; for example, and without being terribly specific (and therefore needing spoilers), the change in color tone to highlight what doesn’t feel like the real world from what does feel real is easy to pick up on, but the entire dream sequence had me scratching my head. The slow pan of the camera showcasing different categories, was it to denote that everything of man’s fashioning to be nothing more than impotent constructs before nature and time? Also, The Writer’s amorphous intentions felt difficult to keep in remembrance and therefore any emotional importance lent to his resolution felt lost on me. I would like to stress though that I don’t want to imply these issues as negative; if anything, I’d be more than happy to revisit this down the road multiple times and pick this apart. This film practically begs to be seen multiple times, if only for the glorious intangibles.

     This film is one of the most beautifully constructed and shot films I have ever seen. The way that the vast majority of the film looks and feels could possibly make Kubrick blush in enviable shame; credit due largely to Tarkovsky’s vision and skill as a director, but also credit to Alexander Knyazhinsky, the film’s second cinematographer. Nothing feels wasted within shots, no angle, no perspective, nothing. Everything feels as if it belonged in a portrait, whether that be a painting or photograph, it’s that gorgeous. The acting from our three main characters feels quietly understated, allowing the physicality imbued to these characters to tell their stories more succinctly and candidly than any of their dialogue could convey; despite my aforementioned issues with The Writer, I greatly enjoyed Anatoly Solonitsyn’s portrayal of the character and of his inner struggles and frustrations, and also of Alexander Kaidanovsky’s work as the titular “Stalker”, of his feelings of fulfillment, purpose and power and his battle finding balance between all three not only within but outside The Zone. The music from Eduard Artemyev was hauntingly beautiful and melancholic, and really helped to enhance the underlying emotional and philosophical undercurrents within the film’s progression, and the direction from Andrei Tarkovsky followed a similar bent, allowing scenes to play out or linger longer than what one would normally be inclined towards. The genius of this though is that while the film may feel slow to most (and it honestly did in the first half), this aspect allows the film’s themes and questions to permeate the viewer and draw them subconsciously in to the machinations of the story; by the time we get to the film’s climax outside The Room, we’re just as invested as the trio who’ve made the trek and subliminally eager to hope for resolutions for them as well. This is good filmmaking, this is what good films intend to do - to make one feel, to make one empathize, to make one experience. If a film can positively affect one in any one or all of these three aspects, then the film/filmmaker has accomplished his job.

     I’ve long been interested in checking out Andrei Tarkovsky’s filmography; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a Half Price Books and had to reluctantly put back a copy of Ivan’s Childhood or Andrei Rublev et al. because I didn’t have enough money to buy everything I wanted at that particular time. As the years passed my desire remained but immediate intent never really materialized into action, but now I can say I’ve finally watched a Tarkovsky. If Stalker is indicative of what one may expect from a Tarkovsky film, then sign me up for the rest of his filmography, as I’m always a sucker for smart, engaging and beautifully shot films. Now that I know what I’d be getting into, I’m more than willing to go back and revisit Stalker and The Zone to learn and experience it with a fresh perspective; mayhaps you’d care to join me?

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