A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)

Andrei Tarkovsky's dystopian fantasy has something of the flavor of a Russian folk tale. The archetypes are there: the perilous quest, the trio of seekers, the anagnorisis, the catharsis, the disillusioned return. The title character, splendidly played by Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, is not a "stalker" in the current sexual sense but rather a man who guides others into the Zone, a mysterious area cordoned off from the rest of the world by the military. In the Zone, the Stalker says, is a Room that fulfills each person's secret desires. The men he guides in the film are a cynical Writer (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) and an ambitious Professor (Nikolai Grinko) -- archetypes of art and science, who throughout their journey make the cases for their respective world-views. The film begins in monochrome -- sometimes stark black-and-white, sometimes sepia -- in the Stalker's bedroom, where he shares a bed with his wife (Alisa Freindlich) and his young daughter, whom they call Monkey (Natasha Abramova). Before he leaves to meet the the Writer and Professor, the wife chides him for taking on another dangerous mission. To get to the Zone, they have to pass through a heavily guarded section, and when they reach it, the film turns to color. But the Zone is no Oz, despite the obvious allusion. It is distinguished from the bleak industrial outside world by an abundance of vegetation that covers not only ruins of a former industrial society but also the tanks, weaponry, and corpses of the military that tried to invade and conquer it. The Zone is also magical, continually frustrating attempts to move through it and reach the Room, but the Stalker has learned how to anticipate and avoid its tricks. He says that as a Stalker he is forbidden to enter the Room, but the truth is that he knows the fate of an earlier Stalker, called Porcupine, who did enter it. Tarkovsky's usual long takes demand actors of considerable skill, and all of the company possess it. Although Freindlich's role as the wife is a smaller one, since she doesn't accompany them on the journey, she has a compelling scene at the film's end that's a master class in how to deliver a monologue. The shoot was a legendarily troubled one, since the locations were actual badly polluted industrial ruins, and many of the crew grew ill from the toxins in the abandoned chemical plant -- there are those who claim that the deaths from lung cancer of Tarkovsky, his wife, Larisa, who was a second-unit director, and Solonitsyn were a result of exposure to chemicals during the filming of Stalker. In fact, much of the film was shot twice, after cinematographer Georgi Rerberg was fired and replaced with Aleksandr Knyazhinsky, doubling the exposure of many of the cast and crew. Backstory aside, Stalker is a fascinating glimpse into Tarkovsky's mind and milieu.