Stalker ★★★½

Exists is a Russian science fiction film (with English subtitles) of such solemn purity and so slow-moving that it lulls you into a trance — that to have made your way through it is something of a Art Film rite of passage, of meditative challenge and metaphor-deciphering grandiosity. It also gives you a kind of qualifier that you’ve graduated: the kind that says, if I can make it through this avante garde work and solve its riddles, I can handle any art film that comes my way!

Serious patience a requirement (or get out!), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker is the legendary Russian quest that is a trip into an annexed zone that contains possible alien powers that is both a promise for desire fulfillment and a death march – the latter was the case at least for the director, actors and crew who made this film.

Violating law, the peasant guide is a “Stalker” (Alexander Kaidanovsky) who takes a writer and a physics professor (Anatoly Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko) into the Zone all the way to The Room where they can have contact with a Higher Power.

These people belong to a dystopian future that is at once decayed and over-industrialized as well as upheld by cast-iron laws, underlined by a bronzed sepia-tone look that highlights the grimy texture within the frame (I wouldn’t call The Room visually florid, but it has a dark hued blacks-and-taupe-and-sands entrancement about it). I surmise it is an over-industrialized future based on a number of shots of what Tarkovsky culls of Russia, of factory smokestacks, of desolate buildings, of polluted waters.

The real conditions where it was filmed were polluted, with Tarkovsky shooting by a deserted hydroelectric station and a chemical plant that poured toxic waters. Many crew members became ill. Tarkovsky in a few short years contracted cancer in his right bronchial tube, his wife Larisa Tarkovskaya would die of cancer, too. Solonitsyn would die of cancer in 1982. On top of all this, the shooting had defective film stock that turned out green and the Kodak development lab would also later mess up the print and Tarkovsky would march remaining crew members or replacement ones back so he could shoot the film three times.

While I was engrossed seeing the film again after many years with the trip so ponderous that it ratchets up an eerie entropy, I was aghast by all the shots of actors wading through discolored pools of water. This is real danger Tarkovsky put his actors through, I thought.

The Zone itself is something to painstakingly observe while Tarkovsky elongates his shots sometimes for up to four minutes. You either see how the presided alien/apparition Zone is distorted in the most subtle way… or you yourself are inventing distortions in your mental projection as a way to justify something happening in this glacier paced film.

What will these great minds want once they enter The Room?
There is a ton of philosophy-making to be had, but all of it is the pessimistic kind. But what befuddles me is that for all the grind of the journey I am perplexed how could anyone enter such mystification and not entertain desires and hopes to the best of your ability?

I am of course criticizing not the film but the characters whose ultimate choices in Stalker are feeble ones. What made the famously influenced Alex Garland directed “Annihilation” such a fantastic film was that the leads were compelled to enter the darkness of the great unknown to look for secrets of the universe, at much personal peril. Stalker is chock of timid men whose curiosity is capped, of pseudo-intellectuals afraid of the possibilities.

Even the protagonist says:

“They call themselves the intelligentsia… they don’t believe in anything. Their capacity for faith has atrophied.”

The Stalker has a wife and daughter, and late in the film the wife begins speaking directly to the camera, and the question is, Who is she talking to? To us she is speaking to, we realize. As cryptic as her form of speech is, apparently she seems to be a believer who knows a little something about The Zone. The daughter is a cripple at the beginning and she still has bad legs by the end, but she seems to have been endowed with a gift.

It’s a beautifully rendered payoff, but the real payoff all along was providing us such a gloomy dystopia that its people are blind to hope’s possibilities, in what is probably an oppressive police state. In translation, the payoff is persuading us how Russia is terminally depressed.

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