Even without religion as a subject, Andrei Tarkovsky’s films evoke a spiritual resonance: from camerawork which observes how characters move through space as much as where they go; in long-duration shots which gently reveal their essence under the passage of time; by the true, unforced sense of significance which arises from the simplest actions and objects under this master’s guidance. He is known for saying the purpose of art is to prepare a person for death, and his films capture transcendent visions of life — life in complexity; layers of being in which philosophy, dreams and hardship merge into a heightened experience, an ethereal sense.
When I say significance, I also mean a kind of weight, for seeing and showing purely is a burdensome task. None of his works are as bare and flat-handed in their examination of humanity as Stalker, but I don’t mean that something sensational or ugly is shown—rather, whereas The Sacrifice is draped in a larger thematic concept, and even the titular character of Ivan’s Childhood carries a sense of fate and fascination alongside his actions, the characters of Stalker are the most ordinary, and the film itself is the most plain. Perhaps “humanity” isn’t the right word to use; one cannot traverse a subject that vast with detail like Tarkovsky’s; instead, we view only three characters for most of the film, but his characters tend to become archetypal figures — not in that they represent a few classic traits, but because they reach so deep into the nature of humanity that they end up signifying more than themselves.
Like many great art films for which “the premise is this, but it’s not really about that”, the three characters of Stalker are on a journey to a mythic room that will manifest their innermost desires, but of course it’s about the journey, not the destination; the ideas presented, not their results — to the extent that almost nothing which is exciting in itself takes place on-screen… and there you have all the qualifications of an indie/art film: dialogue heavy with minimal effects and locations, plus a stand-in Artist character — the kind that’s usually easy to dislike, but The Writer is on a level above and beyond, say, Stardust Memories; read this line now, and listen to it, see it in its context later: “I would put my heart and soul in it, they gobble up both my heart and soul. I would relieve my soul of filth, they gobble it up too… I used to think someone would get better because of my books. No, nobody needs me! In two days after I die they’ll start gobbling up someone else. I wanted to change them, but it’s they who’ve changed me.” This comes at the end of amazingly quiet, tense chain of events, and what you can feel is the spirit of this fellow human, this Writer, being stretched to the breaking point.
There are moments like this among the film’s quiet simplicity, but they’re not climaxes in the usual sense; instead of providing a release for its energy, the film simply builds to the point that it vibrates throughout. At center is the Stalker character himself (within the film the word refers to a type of guide) who acts as a Christ-like figure for the others, offering the best advice from past experience but often ignored or mistreated by his bullheaded company — a situation which takes on special significance in the context of their journey; the way is fraught with danger, but the idea of reaching this room seems to give the other two a foolish sense of superiority alongside the courage to press on. What will they find? How could this change them? In its compassion for these poor souls, Stalker becomes a prayer on behalf of misguided us — that we may someday come to have what we truly need, and not what we think we want.