Review by Gordon Justesen
Freindlikh, Alexander Kaidanovsky, Anatoly Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko, Natasha
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Aspect Ratio 1.37:1
Features: See Review
Length: 161 Minutes
Release Date: July 18, 2017
“We are home.”
The works of Andrei Tarkovsky can best be described as simultaneously beautiful and frustrating. As you are mesmerized by the wondrous art and craft that goes into what’s being displayed on screen you are, or at least I am, at the same time bewildered by the journey itself, which is what was no doubt Tarkovsky’s intention for his audience. No other film demonstrates this more perfectly than Stalker.
Noted as his final film production in Russia, the film is a slow, mind bending journey that will most likely put off those who watch it during an initial viewing, especially if you’re at all unfamiliar with Tarkovsky. Having just seen it for the first time, I myself felt a similar feeling. And yet, in spite of this, I am already intrigued to experience the film again having been haunted by much of what I saw and knowing that I will likely catch on to elements that I missed the first time around.
That is a weird and unlikely effect for a film to have on a viewer, but always seem to be a trait of Tarkovsky’s work. It took several viewings of his film Solaris before I fully appreciated it as a unique film experience. Upon first glance, it didn’t grab me like I thought it would, but one or two viewings later its intended effect managed to land on me, though I still consider Steven Soderbergh’s remake to be far superior.
And I bring up Solaris because it makes for a fitting companion piece with this film, which is actually even more of a complex journey. The story consists of three men, each identified by their profession, wandering through a vast, layered post-apocalyptic landscape known as the Zone. Their goal is to reach a place within this zone known as the Room, which is said to grant the most desired wishes of anyone who inhabits it.
Of the three men, the two who desire to reach the Room the most are Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and Professor (Nikolai Grinko). The third man is the guide of the group; the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky). He’s led many trips like this before, causing it to be something of an obsession and risking his relationship with his wife and daughter in the process.
The most artistic element in the film is the subtle way Tarkovsky alters the color scheme in the film. It begins with a sepia-tone look, up until the moment the men reach the Zone, when the picture changes to color in the most subtle way imaginable. Even if you end up disliking the film immensely, you cannot ignore the overall effect of this particular point.
And once in the Zone, the film literally becomes the simultaneous fascinating and frustrating experience that I made mention of earlier. In each of the different landscapes the men find themselves in, sequences of slow extended quietness do challenge the viewer’s patience which, for me, is a quality that both strengthens and weakens the film. But again...there’s a good chance I’ll garner a deeper and more rich appreciation of it with more viewings of it down the road.
Tarkovsky is one of those rare filmmakers whose films are easy to get a grasp on the first time around, and Stalker is the perfect representation of that fact. As a work of art, I already respect the film tremendously. But the journey within the film is something that will likely find its full effect on me as I re watch it, which I already want to do. Frustrating as it is, Stalker is one experience that is already lingering in my mind.
Criterion’s work on their Blu-rays is so masterfully stunning, that I think it plays a big role in how one perceives a film on a first viewing. That was certainly the case with Stalker, where the visual quality grabbed me right from the opening shot. The multiple color pallettes are magnificent in their appearance, and the visual grandeur of each of the many landscapes within the Zone is tremendously striking to the senses.
The PCM Mono mix delivers about as much as such a sound mix can, but it’s effective to say the least. The balance of dialogue, background sounds and the eerie music score is superbly well handled, and enhances the already challenging mind-bending experience to great effect!
Criterion delivers a great case of quality over quantity with this release, with four fascinating video interviews serving as the supplements. The first, and best one, comes from author Geoff Dyer, author of the book, “Zone: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room”, who delves into how his frustrating first experience of the film led to him watching it repeatedly and loving it. We are also treated to interviews from 2000 with set designer Rashit Safiullin and composer Eduard Artemyev, as well as one from the mid 90s with cinematographer Alexander Knyazhinsky. Rounding out everything is an insert booklet featuring an essay from critic Mark Le Fanu.
Andrei Tarkovsky is a filmmaker whose work deserves the best treatment possible, which is what Criterion has certainly provided for Stalker. It’s rare that I’ve come across a film that has both fascinated me while at the same time nearly make my head explode in frustration, but I can’t deny that this is a true work of art. If you’re up for one challenging experience, then it’s worth your time!