After viewing Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker a second time, I cannot say with any certainty that I understand it more than I did the first: even by the master's standards, its symbolism is impenetrably opaque, its pacing slow and its dialogue more concerned with subtext than telling a coherent story. Yet, this time, I accepted its density and stopped trying to figure everything out as it happened. As a result, I found this viewing infinitely more rewarding, a genuine experience.
As with Tarkovsky's earlier Solaris, Stalker is a science fiction film, and like Solaris, it's sci-fi insofar as its setting is the only aspect that plays into the typical notion of science fiction. Stalker takes place in a decrepit future where technology has seemingly degraded to crumbling communist buildings and bulky, rundown cars; an opening text scroll attributed to a fictional Nobel laureate informs us that a meteorite crashed years ago, and that a team of inspectors sent to investigate it never returned. The government cordoned off the area, known as the Zone, and placed military police around the area to prevent anyone from getting in, with deadly force if necessary.
Naturally, some of the more dedicated truth-seekers found a way. Known as stalkers, these adventurers discovered a room in the epicenter of the meteorite blast that granted one's innermost desires. So, these stalkers decided to ferry hopefuls through the mysterious, (officially) dangerous Zone in exchange for a certain fee. The caveat: a stalker must never enter the Room himself, or at least so we're told.
We meet one of these men, known only by his profession, as he prepares to return to the Zone. His wife begs him not to go: he only just got released from prison after being caught by authorities the last time, their daughter, whose deformities are all but explicitly blamed on whatever effect the Zone might have on those who traverse it, just got used to the sight of her absent father. Stalker rebuffs her pleas and heads to a tavern to meet his latest clients.
Tarkovsky introduces one of them, identified as Writer, in the middle of a rant to a young female companion about the insufferable boredom of the world. He mocks the simplicity of mankind, yet he also mourns the lack of fun and freedom of the Middle Ages. "The world is ruled by cast-iron laws, and it's insufferably boring," he gabs, as though feudalism was one big orgy. The other companion is the considerably quieter Professor. Stalker doesn't ask what these men want from the Room because he does not care; he also recognizes that what desires they might express out loud likely have little to do with what they truly want.
With sepia bronzes and the dank, broken-down buildings of the Soviet-era Estonian shooting location, Tarkovsky presents us with a sickly vision of the future. For all of the writer's incessant jawing, he's got a point when he calls this drab world boring. Even when the three board a Jeep, creep through the patrolled outskirts of the fenced-off Zone and drive through a military roadblock narrowly avoiding machine gun fire, the director's long-take structure and its color filtering prevent Stalker from morphing into a thriller.
The turning point arrives when the trio reaches a motorized draisine that will take them along railway tracks into the Zone proper. Even as machine gun rounds are still intermittently flying around them as the police lob bullets into the area they saw the trespassers last, and despite Stalker's constant warnings about the danger of the Zone, the draisine ride is filmed not with foreboding long shots of these men headed into the mist that permeates the area but with extreme close-ups on each character's face, probing their contemplative faces as they sit in silence. It signifies that, like all of Tarkovsky's work, the protagonists' journey will be spiritual, not physical.
Upon reaching the Zone, the film switches to beautiful color, though if one said, "We're not in Kansas anymore," when stepping into this world it might not be as hopeful. Presenting the Zone in color could obviously be a representation of the area's supernatural or alien power, but it also symbolizes what the Zone means to Stalker. At home he is a poor ex-convict, saddled with a nagging wife and a crippled child. Here, he is one of the chosen few who can navigate a place of hope and magic. In a world of people like Writer, here is a place that can contradict Writer's views of the rigidity of the modern world and the listlessness of mankind. The first thing he does is lay down in the grass contentedly.
The journey to the Room is arduous and lengthy, drawn out by Stalker's warnings and rules about traversing the Zone: before making any significant movements, he throws handkerchiefs tied to steel nuts ahead of the group to ensure the path is not booby-trapped. He cautions that backtracking in the Zone is suicide. And yet for the hour and a half these three wander the Zone, nothing happens to them. What suspense exists at all comes chiefly from Stalker's earnest assurances of danger and his frantic pleas to stop whenever the others grow weary of his unproven assertions (the rest can be attributed to the natural dread of the takes, which drag on so long we're programmed to expect something to happen). That nothing ever actually does happen to the men is largely inconsequential, as the subtle, disorienting nature of the Zone tests them not with adventure movie booby traps but spiritual musings.
Each of the characters suffers a crisis of faith as their philosophical conversations bring out their true feelings. Writer, so arrogant and flippant toward the Zone, wonders what will happen if the Room really does grant wishes. He came to the Zone because he was crippled by writer's block, but, in a brilliant monologue, he notes that if the Zone grants him genius, he might be even less inspired. "A man writes because he is tormented, because he doubts. He needs to constantly prove to himself and the others that he's worth something. And if I know for sure that I'm a genius? Why write then? What the hell for?" When he is sent ahead of Stalker and Professor to ensure a path is safe, he goes too far in a room filled with sand dunes and birds (the most beautiful shot of the film) and collapses, tormenting himself suddenly over how he buckled under fame and how even his most ardent fans will simply move on to the next big thing after he dies.
When the reach the area of the Room, the professor, heretofore respectful of Stalker's commands and generally contemplative, opens up the knapsack he so carefully guarded the entire time and reveals materials for a bomb. If the general population knew that this place was real and it could grant our wishes, he argues, what would stop evil men from coming there and becoming the next Hitler? Stalker pleads like a wretch, begging on hands and knees not to destroy this place, that it gives hope to the hopeless. Professor appears to ignore him, but before he can destroy the place, he has a crisis of conscience and decides that his colleagues were right and that the Zone should remain unharmed. Neither of Stalker's clients enters the Room, and instead they all sit on a dry part of the floor of a flooded chamber as fresh rain falls around them, filling the room with golden light.
When they return, Stalker has his own breakdown, lamenting how his clients had no faith and how they are representative of the rest of the world. Yet there's a certain falsity to his rant, sincere though it is. If not entering the Room constitutes a lack of faith, then Stalker is guilty of hypocrisy. He maintains that a stalker cannot enter the Zone with an ulterior motive, yet he also notes that his mentor Porcupine went into the Room and had his wish granted; Porcupine won the lottery as he wished, but the Room also granted his innermost desire, which was for his brother to die. In anguish, Porcupine hanged himself. But the moral of that story clearly isn't that a stalker cannot enter but that we have no idea what thoughts lie deep within us. If Stalker does not enter the Room it is because, he, like his two clients, is afraid of what might happen.
The question then is whether this represents a lack of faith. I believe it is quite the opposite: rather than enter the Room with materialistic desires, Writer and Professor respected the potential power of the Room by leaving it be. They leave the Zone believing in its power without experiencing it. This might explain why a dog from the Zone follows them home: we first see the black dog as Stalker whispers Biblical passages about God walking with believers without making Himself known to them, and perhaps by following the people out of the Zone the dog signifies the Zone's "approval" of their faith.
For all the stalker's dialogue about faith, however, it's the wife who offers up the most illuminating and touching reflection upon the subject. She describes to her husband the pain of being married to a stalker, how she knew beforehand about the inevitable jail time, the poverty, how it affected any offspring (revealing that the Zone is indeed responsible for Monkey's deformities and drawing disturbing parallels to the future Chernobyl incident). Yet she married him anyway, out of love. The film then ends on a coda in which Monkey sits at a table and seemingly moves glasses through telekinesis, or is it just the passing train? What this means I'm not sure; obviously, some part of the Zone has been passed onto her, but I don't know what significance this has for the world Tarkovsky's created. It's just one of many parts of the film I cannot get my head around, and that's half the joy of Stalker: whether it upholds or bitterly rejects Tarkovsky's notion of the spirituality of man is largely in the eye of the beholder, but this moving, cryptic "sci-fi" film is one of the great masterpieces of foreign cinema, and it offers new challenges and delights with each viewing.