Rod Sedgwick’s review published on Letterboxd:
''The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise it will punish.''
My second viewing of Tarkovsky's Stalker (some say 'the film that killed him') was a completely different experience from my first around 5 or 6 years ago. The main reason for this is that I have greatly developed the way I watch and read films in that time period, and to be honest, my mind at the time was not prepared for a film that works on as many levels as this astounding work.
Stalker was developed over a four year period in which the auteur was tested in many ways, including a year's worth of footage on experimental Kodak film being accidentally (but the crew presume deliberately) destroyed which in turn slashed the production funds. The film changed significantly over the years of production, which makes one imagine how different it could have been - Yet here we have a masterpiece. It has been said that most of the cast and crew including Tarkovsky himself ultimately died due to cancer caused by filming near a chemical plant.
While on the surface the film is the simple odyssey of three men; the Stalker (the enlightened guide), the Writer (seeking meaningful inspiration) and the Professor (A scientist seeking a Nobel prize) as they journey to 'The Zone', in which there is a room that will fulfil ones wish. The path is treacherous, not only in reaching it being required to bust through police borders, but once in 'The Zone', the sanctuary they seek proves to be both elusive and evasive, except to the enlightened Stalker.
Like Solaris, the sci-fi elements are not Tarkovsky's focus, yet he is able to mask his true purpose and themes with this clever front. As the men drift into philosophical and theological debates, it is not hard to recognise the religious allegory in everything from the way the path to the room (or God) is deliberately shrouded from the ones who don't follow God's law, yet the faithful stalker (or as once referred to by the writer as a 'Holy Fool') can navigate it via his reverent belief, whilst the intellectual and scientific men cannot succumb to such faith and ultimately fail in their quest. Tarkovsky was a man of faith and it is imbued in his work, and motifs and scriptural passages can be noticed throughout, including the crown of thorns that writer places on his head or the paraphrasing of a passage from Luke 24:13-18 which describes two disciples failing to recognise Jesus after his resurrection amongst many others.
Not only does religious allegory apply, but a philosophical layer can be read about the hearts of men and the subconscious desire to succeed where others fail. Notice the writer early in the film says ''My conscience wants vegetarianism to win over the world. And my subconscious is yearning for a piece of juicy meat. But what do I want?'' and how this applies to the rules of the room, where a man may desire something of fortune but lurking deeper may be a subconscious desire for something more sinister. This is reflected in the tale that the stalker recounts of Porcupine and the death of his brother that was subconsciously granted by the room. Stalker also notes ''Hardness and strength are death's companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. Because what has hardened will never win.'', which says much for the how the room will respond to the type of men who approach it, a hardened heart and mind will be rejected.
The look of the film, much like Tarkovsky's other works features both monochrome and colour footage with golden sepia representing the decayed and desolate dystopia that is featured in the opening and closing sections, whereas lucid colour represents 'The Zone'. The camera is distinctive of his style and utilizes those wonderful slow and carefully framed tracking shots that help to draw the viewer into the world he is painting, no matter how languid the pace. The element of water seems to be drenching every frame and is most likely symbolic. The soundtrack is rich with the ambient sound of everything from water dripping to trains moving, whilst the score has an off kilter beauty that is similar to that heard in his other films.
I must once again reiterate how rewarding this second helping was in helping me to recognise the true genius of Andrei Tarkovsky. As I work my way through his oeuvre, I am learning his rhythm, his themes, his symbols and motifs and of course his unique style. I have faith that my second and third viewings of all his films are going to dish up a buffet of rewards and delights just as this experience has, proving to me that art lives and breathes and offers up something new every time you go back to it. One should never dismiss complex works upon initial viewing, but embrace it and challenge themselves as a viewer, just as the artist intended to challenge and inspire with his art.
''Let them be helpless like children, because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing. When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible. When he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it's tender and pliant. But when it's dry and hard, it dies.''