Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
This is a beautiful restoration, with Tarkovsky’s previous feature Solaris to follow, courtesy of Mosfilm. Now a “quasi-private” venture, the studio outlived the USSR by adapting successfully to an environment of economic, rather than historical, materialism—meaning that it trades on the many Soviet-era classics it once produced, including Stalker and Solaris. Happily, nothing like the sci-fi apparatus of the earlier film exists in Stalker, though it too is an adaptation of a sci-fi novel: Roadside Picnic, by the brothers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. Stalker simply tracks three men—the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn), The Scientist (Nikolai Grinko), and the Stalker himself (Alexander Kaidanovsky)—as they sneak into a restricted area called the Zone, and maybe out of it again.
The Zone is restricted because people disappear there. This doesn’t discourage visitors: hearsay holds that inside is a room in which one’s innermost wish will be granted. A Stalker’s vocation is to lead room-seekers through a treacherous landscape that looks a lot like an idyllic rural stretch. He is both tour guide and psychopomp; this particular Stalker is also a husband who leaves his unhappy spouse and unhealthy child in the sepia-tinted world outside the Zone, eager to return to its Kodak-color fields.
Tarkovsky sent his trinity into the Zone via a disorienting chase through dim barracks and damp alleys, scrambling the categories of inside/outside: a car drives through a warehouse; a train travels between walls. Censors complained that the rest of the film was too slow, and indeed it isn’t wrong to describe the rest of Stalker as “three grown men on an endless hike through a grassy meadow” (the Stalker claims that the Zone must be traversed without pause). Given the length of Tarkovsky’s takes, this can suggest a critique of livelier cinema; constant movement can be just as aimless as long duration.
But Stalker isn’t aimless. Sure, given all that hiking, the mind wanders—and wanders back. At least one devotee of the film, which is about and inspires devotion, condemns this wandering as our modern inability to concentrate. Why not our old ability to transcend? Stalker suggests that the Stalker’s daughter, who cannot walk, has other methods of movement. Hers is not a cinematic childhood of chase sequences or imagined lands governed by arcane laws. It’s an experience of childhood that should feel even more deeply familiar to us: one in which deep and intense boredom gives way to discovery. Elina Alter (Opens May 5 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center)