A movie of uncommon depth, 'Stalker' is poetic, philosophical, and brooding - and certainly not standard science fiction fare. In it, a guide (a 'stalker', Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) leads a writer (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) and a physics professor (Nikolai Grinko) through a mysterious area of devastation known as 'The Zone', in search of 'The Room', which holds the promise of making their deepest desires come true. The Zone is said to hold mortal dangers to those within it, and is also reactive to their presence, shifting in unpredictable ways. The film is highly allegorical though, and while the trio face murky subterranean horrors, they don't seem to be of the alien kind, but within the mind instead, those associated with the existential condition, and living in a modern world under a totalitarian regime. In this the film seems to deviate, and in more explicitly dark, introspective ways, from the original novel by the Strugatsky brothers (who as an aside, wrote some fantastic fiction aside from 'Roadside Picnic' - check out 'The Doomed City', 'Definitely Maybe', and 'The Dead Mountaineer's Inn' among others).
The film is Kafkaesque, and it's also slow and ponderous, too much so for some viewers. I found that the pace and visuals of devastation to be meaningful, underscoring the bleakness of their lives, and allowing for the quiet of deeper thought. The dialogue is fantastic throughout the movie, and clearly shows the struggle of the intelligentsia in this 'brave new world' of Communism. The writer observes that to be effective, he must be tormented and unsure of himself, that is, the moment he thinks he's a genius and has it made, he's no longer a great writer. Furthermore, "It's impossible to write, thinking all the time of success or failure. But if no one is going to read me in one hundred years, why the hell should I write at all?" He also describes being put through the wringer, at first thinking he will change the world with his words, and then finding out that the world has changed him, and will soon forget him, channeling the angst of Russian authors from Dostoevsky to Grossman. The physicist, on the other hand, fears being denounced by a fellow scientist, accused of disloyalty to the Party for personal reasons, which was a very real problem under Stalin. He wants to destroy the Room, recognizing that it will eventually lead to disaster in the form of absolute power granted to some lunatic, and how true this is. Meanwhile, the stalker is severely disillusioned by the cynicism and impotence of these intellectuals.
There are few actors, but each turns in a soulful performance, including the three leads but also the stalker's wife (Alisa Freyndlikh) - check out her late scene speaking to the camera, and while emotional, getting around to lighting a cigarette. The scene where the stalker walks with her through a stark, desolated landscape, with their legless daughter on his shoulders, nuclear reactors in the background, and music playing that's reminiscent of Pink Floyd, is very powerful, and stuck with me.
In my view, The Zone and the journey to get to it simply represents life in the USSR - a wasteland in the literal and symbolic sense, one with hidden dangers everywhere, and whose rules defy logic, and may change in an instant. One needn't look to extraterrestrials to have created such a place. The trio never enter The Room, but do you really believe it exists? A room where all one's wishes come true, while living under a soul-crushing totalitarian regime? It's a pipe dream. This journey to Oz is not along a yellow brick road, but through a nuclear hellscape.
And yet, there is hope, and a message of perseverance. Tarkovsky gives us the Buddhist concept that those that are soft and flexible will survive, whereas that which is hard and strong is close to breaking, and dying. "When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible. When he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it's tender and pliant. But when it's dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death's companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. Because what has hardened will never win." In the little girl's paranormal capabilities following her reading Tyutchev's poem on love at the end, I also see a message of transcendence, that the youth of tomorrow will be capable of things that can't be conceived of today. Can miracles still exist, and will the Russian people someday be free? Powerful.
A few more quotes:
"But imagine some antique pot displayed in a museum. It was used at its time as a receptacle of food leftovers, but now it's an object of universal admiration for its laconic pattern and unique form. Everyone goes oh! and ah! And suddenly it turns out that it's not antique at all, that some joker has palmed it off on the archeologists just for fun. Strange as it may seem, the admiration dies off. Those connoisseurs..."
On music, and meaning:
"You were talking recently about the meaning of our life, of the unselfishness of art. Take music, for instance. Less than anything else, it is connected to reality, or if connected at all, it's done mechanically, not by way of ideas, just by a sheer sound, devoid of any associations. And yet, music, as if by some miracle, gets through to our heart. What is it that resonates in us in response to noise brought to harmony, making it the source of the greatest delight which stuns us and brings us together? Why is all this necessary? And above all, for whom? You'll reply: 'For no one and no reason.' No. I doubt that. For everything in the final reckoning has a meaning. A meaning and a reason."
On love, the poem 'Dull Flame of Desire' by Fyodor Tyutchev:
"I love those eyes of yours, my friend,
Their sparkling, flashing, fiery wonder;
When suddenly those lids ascend,
Then lightning rips the sky asunder;
You swiftly glance, and there's an end;
There's greater charm, though, to admire
When lowered are those eyes divine
In moment's kissed by passion's fire;
When through the downcast lashes shine
The smoldering embers of desire..."
Lastly, reflecting a sense of gratitude, but needing more, by Arseny Tarkovsky, father of the director.
"Now the summer is passed,
It might never have been;
It is warm in the sun,
But it isn't enough;
All that I could attain,
Like a five-fingered leaf,
Fell straight into my hand,
But it isn't enough;
Neither evil nor good
Has yet vanished in vain;
It all burned and was light,
But it isn't enough;
Life has been like a shield
And has offered protection;
I have been very lucky,
But it isn't enough;
The leaves were not burned,
The boughs were not broken;
The day shines like glass,
But it isn't enough.
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