Trying to write about a film by Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky is like trying to write about the book of Ecclesiastes, or Shakespeare, or the new Arcade Fire CD. Sometimes you just have to experience a work in order to understand its insights, its challenges, its poetic feel. It's not always easy, and you won't typically get it the first time around. These are works in which you must immerse yourself in both the experience and the context in which it was made, and even then you might need more than one experience with it to latch on to all the "in-between the lines".
While this is the first time I've sat down with Stalker, I'm familiar with Tarkovsky, having sat multiple times with several other films: The Sacrifice, Solaris, Andrei Rublev -- the latter of which leaves a hum in your system on the second viewing. Tarkovsky lived as a Christian filmmaker/artist under Soviet rule. His films subtly hold a mirror to the oppression he lived in, and even more subtly suggest a better way found through faith. When working under a regime you often find yourself dealing in subtleties.
His films are highly artistic, almost like wandering into an art gallery that instantly catches you by surprise, taking your breath away. They're also profound and poetic, both at the same time -- but sometimes the films feel numbingly slow.
I can understand it when a person says Tarkovsky's films are not for them, that the pacing it too great a challenge, that they can't fall into some of the surrealist acting or spiritual metaphors. But I wouldn't understand if one couldn't appreciate the political and spiritual search for freedom of expression that's anchored at the core of his work. A boundary pusher in a system that needed him, Tarkovsky carried a torch that could have landed him, like recent Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, in trouble with the system and in jail.
To not understand at least that much of the context and then to watch any of Tarkovsky's films would make the experience a real bore. Education is a must when approaching and trying to understand the mark he left.
On the surface, Stalker is a very simple science fiction story of a man that takes some visitors into a mysterious post-apocalyptic land called "The Zone." The Zone seems to strangely affect those who break through its militarized border to get in. Various interpretations try and explain the power that's found there. I have my own. It's different, but I think it's got teeth.
Having been to Russia quite a few times, even before the collapse of communism, having been in all kinds of churches there and knowing what people of the Christian faith dealt with in those years, it's really admirable -- of the highest sort -- to think that Tarkovsky made this particular film in 1979, almost a decade in front of glasnost and Polish solidarity but twenty years after Brother Andrew visited Moscow. I don't know what kind of freedom of speech was available in 1979 in either the church or in art in general, but consider all of the following elements found in communist-era Stalker:
A telling of the story of the road to Emmaus (without mention of the identity of the stranger that appeared); a pronouncement of unforgiveness while a major character is wearing a crown of thorns; the idea that a violent act will bring an end to the thing that might liberate someone (a bomb in the zone); and a little girl -- once called a mutant, born of the "Stalker," a man whose sole life purpose is to guide visitors through The Zone -- who is more powerful than anyone thinks, with strange psychic powers in the film's end.
All of this leads me to believe that the Zone is actually a place of peace and restoration, Garden-like in its state of tranquility, and that the world outside of the Zone is simply a world afraid of change and left in its own dismantled state. The little girl is a representative of the next generation who is going to "feel" the Zone out before she arrives.
The Zone in the context of Soviet Russia seems to suggest that there are ideas on the other side of oppression, that there is visible peace in sight. Note how peaceful the Zone is. Note how when they arrive the Stalker immediately feels a connection to the land. He feels like he's come home. It is humanity's natural state to desire freedom from oppression, whether from tyranny or more suggestive oppression in lack of freedom of speech or political correctness. He feels at home here, and he feels a peace, yet every step is feared. It's a life he's not known before. Sure, it's in color, but there are going to be pitfalls and traps along the way. But it is a place he wants to navigate, because the human heart longs for liberation.
These are some intense reasons in the narrative structure and mystery of the Zone to fall incredibly in love with everything Tarkovsky lays out here in 1979. I haven't even gotten to the high-level, immense beauty of the cinematography, the intensity of the bedroom and the marriage in this context, the magnetic visuals that also blow the viewer away.
But I'm quite conflicted about Stalker. Actually, I'm more conflicted about my own experience with it than I am with the film itself. Moments definitely have a trance-like, hypnotic feel, and after a bit you are simultaneously enjoying the mesmerizing scenes while wishing for it to move on. That is why I love a quote I found on the Arts & Faith board, a quote which pretty well sums up my confliction for Tarkovsky's great film:
One of the things I'm trying to unpack is the possibility that some aesthetic experiments are more likely to evoke widely varying responses even within the same viewer, precisely because the element being experimented with is a particularly subjective and changeable one. And that the experience of time is just such a thing.It tried my patience at times, to be sure. But in reflecting on it after only one viewing, I have no doubt I'll be visiting again -- especially after the final scene, where a lot of the film came together for me.
There is no doubt Tarkovsky is one of the great masters. I'm only learning to finally catch on.