The Criterion Collection: Stalker Blu-ray review
For any discerning cinephile, this Criterion re-release of Andrei Tarkovsky’s haunting and hypnotic sci-fi masterpiece is an absolutely essential purchase. Based on the novella Roadside Picnic by the brothers Strugatsky, Tarkovsky set about stripping the story of nearly all genre elements in order to suit his aesthetic and ideology. What is left behind is one of cinema’s great philosophical debates. A metaphysical journey towards faith, and an eerie, Soviet quest for the Holy Grail.
The story tells of a vast area of land that has been closed off and is guarded by armed soldiers. This “Zone” is rumoured to mark the place where Earth has been invaded by some mysterious celestial entity. The Zone is laden with traps and temptations; with artefacts and ruins that are both strange and familiar. The physical laws of our world don’t apply within the borders of the Zone.
The stalkers are a new breed of criminal, men who are drawn to the Zone, who collect the artefacts and lead illegal tourists through the many wonders and dangers of the Zone. At the centre of the Zone there is a room which is believed to be able to grant the wishes of those who find it. The film follows the journey of a Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky), a Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and a Professor (Nikolia Grinko) to find this room.
Afters years spent battling the Soviet authorities, and a failed attempt to bring Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot to the screen, Tarkovsky took complete authorship of Stalker. As director, screenwriter, and production designer, he is an artist in absolute control of his work. His vision of a decaying world (eerily prescient of Chernobyl, still seven years away) is beautiful and truly unique.
But as with all Tarkovsky films, he is not merely painting the physical world. With his trademark photography of languorous zooms and slow moving pans, he is able to convey something far more poignant – the decay of faith. In one scene, his camera floats over a shallow pool of water that is littered with the waste and debris of our modern civilisation. Alongside this is a detail from the van Eyck brothers Ghent Altarpiece. Russian cinema, Andrei Tarkovsky, and religious allegory. Like three peas in a pod.
Equally poignant are his portraits of his characters. Again, the slow zooms into extreme close up shots that linger in silence and stillness over the faces of the Writer, Professor and Stalker. Tarkovsky creates a vivid image of men coming to understand themselves and their own spirituality.
Digitally restored the film looks and sounds wonderful. The disc comes with a new in depth interview with writer Geoff Dyer, the author of Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room. There are also archive interviews from 2002 with cinematographer Aleksandr Knyazhinskiy, set designer Rashit Safiullin, and composer Eduard Artemyev. The booklet also comes with an essay by critic and Tarkovsky expert Mark Le Fanu.
This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus