Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Screenplay: Boris and Arkady Strugatsky
Based On The Novel Roadside Picnic By: Boris and Arkady Strugatsky
Starring: Aleksander Kaidanovsky; Anatoly Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko, Alisa Freindlikh, Natasha Abramova
Year: 1979
Duration: 161 mins
Country: Russia

The bare bones of this story sound rather unappealing, perhaps even hack: a mysterious man, knowledgeable about a mysterious Zone, takes two mysterious guests on a metaphysical pilgrimage. The goal is to find the dream-fulfilling ‘Room’.

His clients are known only as the Writer and the Scientist. The Zone may be the leftover effects of an alien visitation – it is not explicitly stated – although it is a militarised area that requires a guide to get in and out. Non-genre fans don’t need to worry, however- this is a quiet meditative film, with natural settings, not a silver-clad space opera.

Its pace fits well with the slow film, slow food trope that has become popular in the last few years. But Stalker makes more demands on the viewer than merely patience, it is, at times, deliberately opaque, leaving questions hanging and sentences unfinished.

Like all film lazily classified as ‘arty’ there is a lot of symbolism. Most of it works – although what a viewer gets from symbolism depends mostly their own experiences and knowledge. It was a little heavy handed for me in one well-known scene – a long tracking shot of objects in shallow water. The water seems very clear, but many of the objects are the detritus of modern life – dirty and unappealing – the shot finishes on a submerged religious artefact featuring a Russian-style Jesus.

Dare I say I thought it a bit trite? Probably that will upset die hard fans, but that was my feeling.

More subtle is when the Stalker started to relay a Biblical passage from Luke 24: Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to two of his disciples. Interestingly the quote stops short of the part that seems most relevant to the film, from verse 32: ‘were not our hearts burning within us as he spoke to us on the road?’ Clearly Tarkovsky expects us to bring that sort of knowledge with us.

His habit of framing a lot of the sequences also seems symbolic: doorways, windows, holes in the architecture, tunnel entrances. As if context is being implied, but not supplied.

The combination of discussions of metaphysics and the hope the three protagonists have in finding the goal of their expedition – the Room that can fulfil dreams – make for a compelling proposition, if you allow it to seep into your psyche.

And yet, despite the hope, despite the fact that there are small groups of people in the film – the three main protagonists and the Stalker’s small family of three – everyone seems to be alone. Despite the religious allusions, it appears to be an atheistic world.

The bar where the action is a drab place – reminiscent of a rundown German expressionistic film set. And this bar, along with the realms outside the Zone are portrayed as diseased – they are all in a sepia duo-tone. However, the Zone, whilst dangerous, is colourful.

The sound is striking. Composer Eduard Artemyev, interviewed in one of the DVD extras, says Tarkovsky ‘didn’t want a composer, he wanted a composer’s ear.’ He wrote hours of music, but very little was used – and the film is all the more effective for it. For those of us who get irritated by not being able to hear the dialogue in modern productions above the blaring soundtrack, it makes for a delightful thinking space.

Artemyev’s synth effects add another level again to the combination of contemplativeness and weirdness. Sometimes you can barely tell the difference between ‘natural’ and synthetic sound. And the oft-used dissonance between the images and the sound effects add even more.

Although the screenplay is credited to the Strugatsky brothers, Tarkovsky said at the time that the similarities between their original book, Roadside Picnic, and Stalker, boiled down to the use of the word stalker and Zone. As a fan of the book I would content that this is not entirely so.

The book uses the name ‘Monkey’ for the Stalker’s mutated daughter, as does the book, although the nature of the mutation is different. The book also portrays the ‘meat grinder’ as a particularly dangerous area of the Zone – a tunnel in the film, the entrance to a disused quarry in the book. And the general tone of the film and book are in simpatico. If ever a science fiction book could be described as sepia-toned, it is <em>Roadside Picnic</em>.

The cinematography and painterly approach to the film make it beautiful to look at. The dialogue is thoughtful – with any accusation of pretention undercut by odd humour and little quirky occurrences – characters slipping over, for example.

And usually, speaking from personal experience, if one is a fan of a book the film in almost invariably a let-down. This is not – it is related but also stands alone as a piece of art.

It is released by Criterion 24 July 2017.

Other features:

  • New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New interview with Geoff Dyer, author of <em>Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room</em>
  • Interviews from 2002 with cinematographer Alexander Knyazhinsky, set designer Rashit Safiullin, and composer Eduard Artemyev
  • An essay by critic Mark Le Fanu

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