Cold War masterpiece ‘Stalker’ gets fresh airing

A wish granted is not a life changed. In Stalker, the chance for three citizens of an industrial, quasi-totalitarian present to enter an out-of-time space called The Zone produces no satisfaction. Part of the joke in Andrei Tarkovsky’s beloved 1979 classic is that The Zone looks no less bleak and dirty than the purported real world. Often regarded as a commentary on the Soviet Union’s post-Stalin decline, Stalker itself has for too long looked like a product of those times. An edition released by Kino a decade ago replaced the disgraceful prints extant, but even the first third’s monochrome images look as if industrial smog had smeared the lenses, or grime-encrusted snow. Thanks to Janus Films, a 4K restoration touring the country and a print of Solaris will run through Thursday, June 29 at Coral Gables Art Cinema.

A filmmaker of severe formal rigor who ran afoul of the Soviet film industry, Tarkovsky’s adaptation of scriptwriters Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s novel creates immersive experiences demanding from audiences an attention to how dialogue and performance sometimes clash, fruitfully, with setting and camerawork. Stalker resists characterization, though. What begins as a depiction of lives smacked by firm government that the Andrzej Wajda who made Kanal might have recognized turns into a static but dialectical meditation on reality itself. In Stalker‘s greatest sequence, a train containing our trio hurtles toward The Zone, whereupon a hard cut signals their arrival; color overwhelms the screen, the Stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) is playing with a caterpillar, and the landscape is now a forest of thick pines and overgrown meadows. But the three find no peace. The Writer (Solaris’ Anatoliy Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolay Grinko) participate in discussions centering on their experiences; their names define them. In the dreary “real” world they abandon for the Zone, that’s all they are. “Everything gets clear here until it’s too late,” one of the characters observes. “For Tarkovsky the artist, despite his Russian Orthodox Christian faith, despite his insistence that the epic scenery of Utah and Arizona could only have been created by god, it is an almost infinite capacity to generate doubt and uncertainty (and, extrapolating from there, wonder),” Glenn Kenny wrote several years ago in his review of Zona, Geoff Dyer’s book length disquisition on Stalker. To enter the Zone, where one’s fondest desires are realized, means to confront the desire for those desires too, and whether, as T.S. Eliot once wrote, “desires ungratified” shouldn’t be allowed to persist. Key to Stalker is the performance of Kaydanovskiy, projecting what film reviewer Hans Morgenstern calls an existential sadness.

Speaking for myself, I am more moved by 1975’s The Mirror, in which the ripple of sequences demonstrates an interweaving of past and present that is one of the closest cinematic equivalences to reading Proust I’ve ever seen. Then again, it’s likely that few people have seen Stalker look this impressive. It awaits a new generation of curious fans.

Gables Cinema Associate Director Javier Chavez, along with Miami Jewish Film Festival director Igor Shteyrenberg and Independent Ethos film critic Hans Morgenstern, will discuss Stalker and Solaris at a panel called “In the Zone: The Mysteries and Revelations of Andrei Tarkovsky” tonight at 7 p.m. Criterion Collection will release a remastered edition on DVD and Blu-Ray on July 17.

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