Sunday, 8 July 2007

classic image: stalker (andrei tarkovsky, 1979)

About halfway through Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979), a film that had an impact on me that very few others did, the three characters who have ventured into the mysterious, otherworldly Zone - an eerily beautiful landscape of stillness, decay and disintegration - stop for a rest while crossing a riverbed. They are the aesthetically-minded but somewhat egocentric Writer, the rationalist Professor, and the eponymous Stalker guiding them through the Zone towards the Room, a place that supposedly grants all who enter it their deepest desire.

Out of this simple, sci-fi-tinged premise, Tarkovsky crafts a shattering, profoundly allegorical, ambiguous meditation on faith and the spiritual element in humanity. As the travellers rest, Tarkovsky's camera, starting from the Stalker's sleeping face, slowly tracks across the shallow riverbed, finding, strewn in the dirt under the shallow, still water, the detritus of a dying civilization - cogs of industrial machinery, coins, hypodermic syringes, a religious icon. The camera finally stops when it finds the hand of another sleeper lying in the pool.

It sounds so simple in words, but, much the same as the rest of this uniquely powerful film, the transcendental, poetic grandeur of the scene is impossible to bring across. Quite apart from its sheer aesthetic beauty (shot in gorgeous sepia tones), and its melancholy, meditative stillness, the scene is laden with symbolic weight. Coming immediately after a deeply philosophical argument on the possibility and means of transcending our human natures, Tarkovsky shows us all the implements and artefacts by which humanity has strived to make itself into something greater - all reduced to wreckage in the mud of a riverbed. Moreover, the shot traces an intellectual arc, starting and ending with humanity, suggesting that all of humanity's attempts at transcendence have only provided momentary flights that invariably return us to the inevitability of confronting our own human nature.

It is a stunning, unforgettable moment in a two-and-a-half hour film composed of virtually nothing but.

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