Stalker ★★★½

I don’t quite know what to make of this experience. I must have thought some version of that sentiment though to every Andre Tarkovsky movie I’ve seen. Except Andrei Rublev which I pretty much loved unambiguously from the beginning. Yet, I have to say there was something inviting about the obscurity of Mirror and The Sacrifice that I didn’t get here. The movie kept drawing me in and pushing me a way. I wish I had more concrete observations to offer. I see a lot of greatness here, but I have a lingering frustration with it that I can’t shake and can’t put my finger on. I have the sense that once the dust settles, this will either be my favorite or my least favorite Tarkovsky.

It's about a mysterious zone in the Soviet Union. Once a populated city, the zone was transformed by a meteorite, or perhaps aliens. The Zone is believed to cause death, so the government has set up a strict quarantine. There is rumored to be a room in the Zone that grants your deepest desires. The film takes place twenty years in, and centers on a man who smuggles clients into the zone. He’s called a Stalker, and on this occasion, he’s hired to smuggle in a writer and a scientist.

I love how the very description of the Zone at the very beginning sets up the struggle that makes this narrative so fascinating. It’s caused by a meteorite, or maybe by aliens instead. The cause is either natural or supernatural. We can look to the things of this world we know and that we can study and analyze, like meteorites, or we can look beyond human experience, use our imagination, or deductive reasoning, to speculate on the unknowable, like aliens. We get this dichotomy as well in the writer and the scientist. Two professions that seek truth, but in different capacities. There’s the truth of proofs and experiments, and the truth of authenticity and soundness. Does seeking truth mean seeking certainty, or seeking understanding? So, then, naturally, the frequent handwringing over who goes first, the professor or the writer. And yet, in both ways lie madness.

This is a fascinating movie to ponder, and I’m also struck at how much beauty Tarkovsky captures in seemingly ugly things, like polluted landscapes. It’s a wonder I didn’t like it more. I think what it comes down to is its weirdness. It is deliberately confusing, very slowly paced, without ever taking the time to explain things. It’s befuddling. I’m sure for many that’s part of its charm, and maybe I’ll come around on it. As I said earlier, I like the weirdness of Mirror. But there, the weirdness was appropriate. Mirror is about memory, and that is a subject that is by its nature fragmented and nonlinear. The style is fitting. But Stalker, on the other hand, is a quest narrative. It’s about seeking truth, or life, or your desires. It’s subject is forward-moving, and has agency. So I think the style frustrated me because it didn’t seem to fit the material. It’s weird for its own sake. Is this fair criticism? Maybe so, maybe not, but for now, that is what it is.

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