6891lybonrehc’s review published on Letterboxd:
"'Prison?' I'm in Prison every day"
This is, without a doubt, the film that I've put the most thought into ever, and only finally do I feel comfortable writing a review about it.
Stalker is man's confrontation with his own soul, with the unknown, with the impossible to know, and above all with God, and there is no one better qualified, in my opinion, to tackle these opinions, other than Tarkovsky.
In this review, I'll focus on the cultural elements that influence the film (and the book from which it is based A Roadside Picnic, the Zone, and the film's characters.
One of the most prominent themes in all of Tarkovsky's work is the idea of the "Idiot", or a God's fool. I have spoken about this theme in other works like Nostalghia, A Visitor to a Museum, and Dead Man's Letters, all Russian films (in the case of the first directed by a Russian), that deal with a very Russian idea. A God's fool is a mentally impaired person who, in spite of his or her suffering, devotes their life to God and His glorification. In Russian literature and the Russian Orthodox Church this idea is very prominent. As an example, I cite Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, which I just found out is actually Tarkovsky's favorite novel. For those who haven't read it (and consider yourself warned for spoilers if you haven't yet and still intend to), it follows a very arrogant man, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, who, fed up with society, builds himself into a frenzy to kill his landlord and her sister. He eventually succumbs to his own mind, and, after falling in love with the daughter of a drunkard (Sonya), who is forced to prostitute herself for her family's sake, turns himself in to the police and is deported to Siberia. Rodion starts the book an atheist who is bitter and cynical with his surroundings and finishes the book as a religious man who is loved and can cope with his horrible surroundings in exile. Sonya, while not an "idiot", is a deeply religious girl, who suffers for her family and gives up her sinless lifestyle to pay for her young siblings and ailing mother, all the while maintaining the same purity of heart in her suffering. Sonya, and to a lesser extent the mentally handicapped (and also very religious) sister Lizaveta Ivanovna are both examples of the "pure through suffering" complex that is so heavily explored in Russian culture, and is so important in Tarkovsky's work. Stalker is based off of a book, A Roadside Picnic, which, I would suggest you all read if you want to understand the film. Even though the two works greatly differ in many ways, there is a general theme that is retained in both: a criticism of intellectualism. In the book, scientists spend years trying to uncover the mysteries of the Zone, only to further increase their own ignorance. In the film, the Professor and Writer each symbolize a part of modern, secular society, that, through its lack of faith, is unable to grasp the paradoxical truth of a Creator who is entirely unable to be revealed by any conventional method to His creations.
The Zone is representative, broadly speaking, of God. The Zone is presumed to be many things, from the result of an extraterrestrial visit, to a manmade experiment. In any case, it is not understood to be natural in any way, and despite the best efforts of those like the Professor (and his colleagues at the Institute which studies it), the Zone is unquantifiable, much like God. However, there is an ambiguity to it. Like God, there is a never ending effort on the part of the brightest elements of society to rationalize it, while at the same rate, it purposefully acts devious, refusing any sort of models or formulas attributed to its natures, reducing man's understanding of it to only moral, spiritual terms. It is in this way that Tarkovsky asserts its Divinity. Despite the scoffing of the Writer and Professor, the Zone seems, in the mind of the Stalker, to judge people, not just for their spiritual qualities as to whether or not they are good or bad, but whether or not they have suffered. Indeed, the Stalker himself says that "I believe it lets through all who've lost hope." Perhaps this is merely the makings of the Zone by the Stalker, and granted, the Stalker may not entirely be right about the Zone, as he holds for himself his own personal meaning for it (which, in many ways, is how the very worst off in society quantify their lives through God, being able to reconcile the ills that have befallen them with their faith), but there is also great truth in it. Each one of the three men who enter the Zone in the film have great suffering to their characters. The Stalker has a rotten life, a mutant child, and has spent years behind bars. The Professor is consumed with bitterness, which drives his search not for the Zone, but for its destruction (no doubt commentary on how, from the view of the religious, men of science try to tear apart that which they do not understand). The Writer is dogged by his own inner demons, and shows his anger towards other. None of the men are evil, and none of them enter the final room, but they have all suffered. The Writer and Professor are critical of the Stalker and the final room, claiming that he does not go into it because he is a hypocritical megalomaniac. I like to think, however, that the Stalker does not go in, because he has no need to. To him, his greatest wish, to help others, is already granted by the Zone. Like a God's fool, he is a tool of the Zone to spread the "good news" of the love and happiness that the Zone can provide. The Zone is, like the God in the Christian religion, a merciful one, but not one to be meddled with. The Zone destroys tanks and soldiers who enter it, demonstrating its own power, while also letting go three tormented men, even if two of them are unbelievers who are critical both of it and its messenger, the Stalker. Finally, the Zone cannot be understood by science, and man continues to struggle with it, whether it be through the avenues of force (the army), science (the professor and institute), or philosophy (the writer). Thus, the Zone is not just a representation of God, but of our perception of God, being that it exists in a state foreign to ourselves.
The film's characters are each representative of a strand of human thought that seeks to quantify life. The Professor embodies science, the Writer philosophy, and the Stalker religion and faith. Lets start with the Professor. He is unflinching, cold, and callous towards the ideas of abstracts that the writer presents. In addition, his motive for going to the Zone is to destroy it, ostensibly for the benefit of all man by preventing the rise of a million Hitlers and Napoleons, but, as the audience knows, is actually to fulfill his own selfish resentment towards a colleague. Yet, the Professor is not evil, not entirely. He views himself, rather arrogantly, as a protector of mankind. In addition to his pleas to seal the last room from the rest of the world and all its ills, he offers rebuttals to the diatribes of the Writer that focus on cold realities, like world hunger. As such, he views himself and his work as infallible, and being that the film paints a religious man as the protagonist, this is not too surprising. The Writer, on the other hand, has come to the Zone for muddled, unsure, reasons. His own self doubt draws him to the Zone and the possibility of the Divine, while he time and again demonstrates a pathological fear of death (fear of the dead soldiers, fear prompting him to bring a gun into the Zone). These feelings cultivate in him a sort of persecution complex. He becomes convinced that the Stalker is trying to kill him, and wears a crown of thorns for himself, both mocking the Stalker's holiness, and drawing attention to his own supposed suffering. He argues that the Stalker holds them hostage with his fearmongering, so that he can control them and satisfy his inner power fantasies (a sort of "holier than thou" type of argument similar to those who criticize the religious for looking down on the irreligious). Yet both of these men, these examples of the "intellectual intelligentsia", are drawn to the Zone, and both, even given the means, are unable to condemn it to destruction or violate its wishes. They understand its power vaguely, but, unlike the Stalker, do not embrace it, instead choosing to remain aloof and criticize it and its follower, just like the unfeeling and ignorant thinkers in A Roadside Picnic. I would argue that the Writer, who shows bitterness and hostility to others, dislikes the Stalker because the Stalker is able to satisfy his own pathetic life through an avenue that the Writer, despite his frustrated efforts, cannot understand or appreciate. The Stalker spent the film trying to open their hearts, but they refused, and because of this refused to see the light of the Zone. Briefly I would like to touch on the Stalker's wife and the monkey, who, despite their smaller role in the story, are very important to the Stalker's character. The wife admits in a monologue at the end that she married the Stalker knowing full well the consequences, but, like Rodion in Crime in Punishment, was strangely attracted to a person whose holiness and wretchedness created a sort of beautiful suffering in them. Monkey too demonstrates a similar complexity. She remains mute for most of the film, and, as a mutant, one would expect that she be intellectually impaired. However, the audience learns that she is actually rather bright and is blessed with special abilities. This all ties into the character of the Stalker himself. The Stalker is presumed for much of the movie to be nothing other than a fool, who, towards the end, is assumed to be even worse: a cruel man. This is not true, however, despite the long winded oratories of the Professor and Writer. The Stalker spends the entire film showing kindness towards others, praising them, trying to save them, and affording them special considerations. His motive for going to the Zone is not the money he is paid, nor the cruelties that he supposedly inflicts, but the pleasure that he receives in sharing with others the light that he is familiar with. And despite the implications that the Writer and Professor were far brighter than him, we see at the end of the film that he is a deeply complex man who is extremely well read. He freely admits to his sinful nature, but not because he is a truly vile man. Instead, he does so because of his own humility. Like one of the faithful, he prays for his sinful companions, asking that they be granted mercy by the Zone, stating "what they call passion is merely energy, friction between the soul and the outside world." The Stalker seeks to create a rebirth in those he brings with him, saying that, like a newborn is fresh and pliable, whereas an old man is hard, and that a living soul should be pliable and accepting to enjoy rebirth and faith. In the end, however, he is condemned by his companions, and even misunderstood by his wife. The Stalker then can enjoy his faith only in solitude, and, out of fear that he might lose one of the few remaining stable things in his life, refuses to share it with his wife. The Stalker is doomed then to a bittersweet suffering. He has a wife who still loves him regardless, and a child with amazing abilities. He has faith that in itself is beneficial. However, he lives in squalor, he cannot show the light he enjoys to others, and his child, like him is crippled and doomed to be a social outcast. The Stalker, then, embodies the counterpoint to the faithless society of the Writer and Professor, as he continues to live live in wretchedness but copes with it through his unending faith.
I think I read somewhere that Tarkovsky was very averse to the idea of stating themes in his work, especially Stalker, given that it is more of a spiritual journey than a determined set of ideas to be recognized. Its very possible much, if not everything that I've said, is just my interpretation and nothing more. However, I like to think that Tarkovsky was lying, but in a positive way. Themes and art, like faith in God, should not be a rigid set of rules like A+B=C, but instead should be the journey of the soul to reach the total and immovable truth that can only be reached on the personal level. That is what Stalker, at least to me, is, and that's why I love it.