#2 in my ranking of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films.
There’s something about science fiction that really tries to mess with the audience’s head that I really appreciate. These are stories that really try to create something different, something removed from our own experiences, that challenge some basic concept of perception. Part of doing that, I long ago figured, was tying these kinds of perception bending experiences with larger questions. You can imply the broken realities, but they also need to be tied to something else to give it greater heft. It should surprise no one that when Andrei Tarkovsky decided to very loosely adapt Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Stugarsky, making his second science fiction film after Solaris, that he would use it as a vehicle to pursue other questions that were important to him.
Tarkovsky made slow movies. Let’s just put it out there. His movies are not paced like a modern blockbuster. They are steady and contemplative, using long shots (often over four minutes long) that allow characters to move around in a space and behave in quiet and introspective ways. The film has, really, only four characters across its entire two-hour and forty-minute runtime, and that focus allows for real clarity around its characters, setting, and ideas. I know that Tarkovsky isn’t for everyone, but for those who can take this sort of slow pace, Stalker represents a treasure of a film, a pinnacle of filmmaking from one of cinema’s greatest.
At some point in the future, a meteorite fell to earth in a remote town. People disappeared, rumors began circulating, and the authorities fenced off the entire area calling it the Zone. There are stories of a special room in the Zone that will grant wishes to anyone who goes inside. Arising to meet the demand for passage to the room through the military guard are stalkers, independent guides into the Zone.
The story is about one stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) leading two tourists inside. The Professor (Nikolai Grinko) is a physicist, practical and even headed. The Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) is a deeply cynical nihilist who doesn’t even believe his own writing is worth anything. The Stalker has an incredibly dangerous job, getting people into the Zone, and he’s just gotten out of prison for five years after being caught on a previous venture. His wife (Alisa Freindlich) berates him heavily before he heads out to meet his two charges, breaking down because she knows that she and their daughter (Monkey, played by Natasha Abramova) won’t be able to survive if he goes away again.
Out of everything that Tarkovsky made in the Soviet Union, Stalker is the most obviously religious film he directed. He struggled to include religion in his films as it was largely against the law under Soviet rule. He started Andrei Rublev before the end of the Cultural Thaw, but Solaris and Mirror were both wiped clean of any religious overtones to avoid legal issues. Working in science fiction, apparently, offered him greater freedom, so when he chose to adapt the novel he had obviously religious undertones in mind. It’s kind of hard to miss. Stalker spends the movie with a white strip of cloth around his neck that is similar to a priest’s Roman collar. There’s much more explicit talk of God and faith. Even the writer, near the end of the journey, puts on a crown of thorns, says he’s Jesus Christ, and refuses absolution for Stalker. So, what is the point?
The journey into the Zone and to the room is a desperately dangerous one, but only by implication. Stalker creates a handful of markers, heavy metal bolts tied with white bandages, that he throws ahead of them to ensure that the path is safe. At no point is danger ever directly invited upon the party, though, as they march through first the fields and then the dark, dirty, and wet corridors leading to the room. All the followers have is Stalker’s word that something bad will happen if they go off the path. There are moments that push and pull them into and out of belief of Stalker’s warnings, like when the Writer decides to not go the long way but the short way across a field, and he suddenly stops because a voice commands it. No one knows where the voice came from, but they all heard it. Another time, the Professor falls behind and Stalker insists that you cannot go back the same way you came. They have to leave him behind, and then they just happen across him eating with a small fire made to keep him warm.
It’s amazing how much Tarkovsky can make out of so little. The feeling of dread steadily builds as the quiet of the Zone, the Stalker’s warnings, and the overall sense of unease settles into the audience’s subconscious. The height of this is when Stalker sends the Writer through the Meat Grinder, a dirty curved tunnel that leads to the Room. There’s nothing but the dark corridor, lit by daylight from above in small squares that open up to the sky along the ceiling, and the feeling that there’s something just out of sight. The Writer walks past the curve, and Stalker and the Professor run to catch up until they can see him again. This impending sense of fear is so complete and so effective, and it’s literally one man walking down a tunnel.
One of the main points of the film’s steady pace is the focus it provides on its characters, and the central idea for these characters on this journey is what do they actually desire? The Room, it is agreed upon, does not grant explicit wishes like a genie from a lamp. Instead, it looks into the soul of the person and grants that which they want most. If the person says they want to live like a vegetarian, but their subconscious says that they want steak, then what does the room actually offer? Can they know what they actually want? And why does the Stalker refuse to ever enter the Room himself? Stalker tells the story of another stalker, Porcupine, who did enter the Room after sacrificing his younger brother in the Meat Grinder, and when he returned to the world he became fabulously wealthy, killing himself a week later. What did he really want? The Room could have provided him his brother back, but instead it showed that at his core he was actually a selfish man? Who comes to this place and leaves actually happy?
The Physicist has a secret, though. He hasn’t come to ask of anything from the Room. He’s come to end it, and the confrontation right in front of the Room, as the three tussle against each other and question each other’s motives, especially Stalker’s.
How is this explicitly Christian and religious? How is it not? Stalker is a priest, trying to guide the potentially faithful through life amid a series of unseen traps to heaven where they will get everything they ever desired. How can a priest lead like that, though? Through persuasion and parable. He must guide through invisible dangers to the soul, forcing the followers to investigate their own souls and desires before they can enter the Room, enter Heaven.
There’s a danger in using metaphor because it becomes about the symbols rather than the story itself, and here’s where the delicate balancing act of Tarkovsky’s talent with cinema really shines through. We have characters without names, and yet they extend far beyond just their mere symbolic natures. They feel like real people with real concerns going into a real place. On top of that, the actual filmmaking is impeccable. The movie looks gorgeous even in the dirtiest of manufacturing wastelands. The tension he can build in the smallest of moments is incredible. The performances are raw and believable as three men get torn down to their cores. The surface itself is compelling on its own, but the subtext is so rich that its easy to get lost in it at the same time.
Another thing: This movie was irresponsibly made. I mean, this probably shouldn’t have been made at all. Filming near Tallinn, Eastonia, the place was a chemical and radioactive death trap. There are shots where actors go up to their necks in water obviously filled with chemical waste. Tarkovsky, Solonitsyn, and several crew members all died of cancer within a decade of filming. As much as I love the film, it honestly shouldn’t have been made. Imagine a world where Tarkovsky had another twenty years to make movies, going back to Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That’s an alternate timeline I’d love to see.
That being said, even though Tarkovsky went to this toxic environment, the results (which he apparently filmed three times with a couple of different cinematographers for a few reasons including the Soviet labs not knowing how to treat new Kodak film stock) are often very beautiful to look at. From the deep greens of the exterior of the Zone to the dark and dank interiors, Tarkovsky films everything with a studied eye that brings in detail from all over, using vibrant colors to contrast with the sickly sepia of the look outside the Zone. There’s a careful approach to the visuals, as in any film Tarkovsky made, that really helps to propel the story forward in subtle ways.
There’s something that cuts deeply and quietly about Stalker. Investing in the steady journey towards the Room ends up being incredibly rewarding intellectually and emotionally. It’s a subtle and affecting film, that honestly never should have been made. However, since it was made, I do love it.