The New Zealand International Film Festival has a history of providing cinephiles not only with brilliant new films but also bringing classics back to the big screen, and this year is no different. The Christchurch leg sees the screening of the restored version of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 dystopian classic, Stalker.
Stalker is less of a film and more of an experience. Clocking in at 161 minutes, it’s not the sort of viewing reserved for a lazy Sunday. Based on Russian novel Roadside Picnic, it is the story of a highly-guarded and militarized area called The Zone. Years before, a meteorite hit The Zone, and now it is an uninhabited wilderness. However, it is able to be illegally navigated by guides familiar with the complexities of the area, like Stalker (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky). For what lies in The Zone is an area called The Room, a place known to grant the desires of people who are guided to it. But at what cost?
With Stalker, Tarkovsky has taken the above premise and woven it into a philosophical and metaphysical journey, examining the nature of human desire and free will and using every element at his disposal (sound, dialogue, visuals) to do so. In some respects, there are conventions in the film which seem almost more like a staged play than a film. For instance, the opening scene in Stalker’s ramshackle hut feels more like a stage set than a cinematic one. There are instances when characters will break into monologues, staring unnervingly at the viewer. We’re being pulled in, whether we like it or not. Just as The Zone can do what it wants with those who enter, Tarkovsky is doing the same. We have no choice but to be an active participant. We see the remnants of human desire symbolically submerged beneath water where Stalker naps before the next part of the journey towards the room: coins (greed), a firearm (power), a syringe (escape from the ordinary).
The Zone itself is also a major character. Like an invisible overlord commanding pieces on a chessboard, Stalker and his companions have no choice but to be vigilant about The Zone’s machinations and its ability to trap and confuse the human mind. Compared to the dirty dystopia of the world outside of The Zone, it is a lush, wild, unruly environment. Stalker and his companions surrender to the environment in order to get to The Room, being partially submerged during their journey, laying on beds of moss to rest, trekking through the long grass. There are no straight lines, no easy passages to The Room- The Zone makes sure of it.
Tarkovsky also makes magnificent use of colour for contrast between the world outside The Zone and the world within. Sepia is used effectively for shots outside The Zone, making everything blur into one and feel claustrophobic, compared with the use of colour inside The Zone, providing a sense of depth and expanse.
At its heart, Stalker will make you examine your own perceptions of human desire and free will. What if we were granted the one thing that is at the deepest depths of our heart’s desire? Would it be what we thought we wanted, or does the human ego interfere with desire? And if anyone had the ability to have their desires granted, how would it impact on the people around them?
Stalker is a magnificent watch. Although long, nothing could be sacrificed in order for the film to be a completely immersive journey.
Lynnaire MacDonald, Publicist and Founder, Film Sprites PR