A new print for the last film that Andrei Tarkovsky made in his native Soviet Union, Stalker is an epic and frequently puzzling inquiry into freedom and faith, which unfolds in an unspecified totalitarian society. There a shaven-headed guide known as Stalker (Nikolai Grinko) agrees to escort a Writer (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) and a Scientist (Anatoli Solonitsyn) to a forbidden wasteland area known as the Zone, where in a Room all one's wishes can be granted. But as the man of words asks, "How do I know I want what I want?"
Stalker makes for a fascinating companion piece to the late Russian director's recently re-released Solaris. Whereas the latter celebrated what Tarkovsky described as "the beauty of our planet", this film scrutinises the destruction we have wreaked on the earth's natural resources, and in hindsight it seems eerily prescient of the Chernobyl disaster.
"AN UNDENIABLY ARDUOUS JOURNEY"
Switching between grainy monochrome for the scenes in the industrially-ravaged police state and faded colour for those in the contaminated landscape of the Zone, Tarkovsky leads the viewer on an undeniably arduous journey. The shaven-haired and raggedly dressed appearance of Stalker himself suggests a political allegory, whilst there are numerous biblical and ecological references - from the crown of thorns donned by one of the pilgrims to the way the camera pans over rusting man-made detritus in a muddied river.
At times the philosophical discussions between the squabbling travellers try one's patience, but Tarkovsky majestically creates through editing rather than special effects the unstable universe of the Zone, and amidst the grime and the destruction, summons up moments of pure magic.
In Russian with English subtitles.