25th Jul2017

‘Stalker’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Alexander Kaidanovsky, Anatoli Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko, Alisa Freindlich | Written by Boris Strugatsky, Arkadi Strugatsky | Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

stalker-criterion-blu

Based on Boris and Arkadi Strugatsky’s novel Roadside Picnic (not to mention the inspiration behind a famous video game series), this 1979 epic is a typically challenging work from Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky, but it is worth the effort.

Stalker is ponderous and bleak; demanding without being impenetrable; and guilty of navel-gazing, certainly, but far too intriguing and unsettling to be turned off. Plus, it’s split neatly into two bite-sized parts, so no excuses. The barebones plot involves three men – a Writer and a Professor, led by the titular Stalker – departing the dilapidated city for the forbidden “Zone”, a rural wasteland littered with industrial junk and devoid of people. The Zone is also, perhaps, a sentient entity. The men are searching for the meaning of life. Kinda.

Stalker is true art cinema insofar as it has the look of a dream-like video installation, whilst seeking some kind of truth about the human condition. It is also, in its own understated way, extreme cinema: as the trio explore the desolate, mysterious expanse, they are really exploring the hidden regions of the innermost mind. The opening section is bathed in an oily sepia wash, before giving way to colour when we reach the Zone, like the opening up of new possibilities.

What is the Zone? Everything. Nothing.

Maybe paradise and maybe hell. (The journey begins in a bar, and one wonders whether it was all just one boozy conversation too many.) With its mist-shrouded crumbling monuments, the Zone could represent some netherworld between terra firma and enlightenment – and our nameless protagonists are struggling to bridge the gap. These tourists are deconstructing a place that already looks literally deconstructed. Through catacombs, we follow these protagonists, sharing their fears. They wander and they wonder – aloud, often in drifting monologues, to themselves. And we wonder, too: What is it that these three, each approaching the Great Question from a different perspective, really want to discover? What will they do with the answer? Become as God is, perhaps.

Perhaps the film is about the limitations of the human mind. The Writer and the Professor constantly bicker and discuss, as if trying to beat a revelation from each other. But there’s one thing they’re missing: They never manage to feel. Meanwhile, the Stalker (who might as well be called the Preacher) goes the other way, destined to break down, crippled by awe.

In the end, the Stalker fears the death of faith. It’s as if the Strugatskys and Tarkovsky are proposing the necessity of faith to fill the gaps in our minds that cannot be filled with bog-standard terrestrial philosophy. Perhaps, they’re saying, we need the intervention of the divine to realise the full human experience. Ultimately, the spiritual man fears the answers that threaten the magic of a power above humanity.

Stalker is a film I have watched many times throughout my life, and such is its mesmerising photography, languid pace and super-subtle humour, it’s possible to see something new every time. This is now made easier by Criterion’s dazzling 2K print, which captures the stony eyes and dirty puddles just as the director imagined.

Solaris may get the plaudits, and Mirror might be the high-brow choice, but for me Stalker is the pick of the Tarkovsky canon. It’s gorgeous, relatively accessible, fathomlessly deep, and secretly quite moving. It’s a classic.

Extras are interview-heavy. Eduard Artemyev was the composer on Solaris and Mirror too, and his electronic score for Stalker is like a living thing. His interview is from 2000, as is one with set designer Rashit Safiullin. From 1996, we get a piece with cinematographer Alexander Knyazhinsky. The one new interview for the disc is with Geoff Dyer, Stalker apostle and author of the book Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room. It’s also worth noting that the subtitles for the film are a new translation.

Stalker is out on Blu-ray from Criterion from today, July 24th 2017.

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