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Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979

Possible spoilers ahead

I saw Mirror quite a few years ago now and it was so impenetrable to me that it took a long time to rediscover the desire to give Tarkovsky another whirl. When I saw first Andrei Rublev and then later Stalker pop up on our top 100 list I knew it was about time. And what a densely challenging, frustrating, thought-provoking, otherworldly, rewarding experience it ended up being.

It’s clear that Tarkovsky intended this film to be an intensely personal experience for each individual that takes the leap into this almost 3-hour long spiritual journey, whose modest plot follows three men as they venture into the mysterious Zone, in search of a Room which supposedly has the power to grant a person’s innermost desire. I feel it’s pointless to try to discern any concrete “point” Tarkovsky was trying to make; it’s so densely packed with ideas that each viewer will draw a different conclusion. The fact that you can find masses of wildly varying interpretations of this film around the web is proof of that. At any rate, I can’t pretend to completely understand even my own feelings about it after one viewing.

Purely as a piece of visual art, it’s beautiful and full of unforgettable images. It’s not a beautiful world they inhabit, certainly not, at least, in the pre- and post- Zone sequences (emphasised by the murky sepia-toned cinematography, contrasting the escape into the expectant colour of the Zone). But the way it is photographed (along with the sparse soundtrack) gives it a distinctive magical-realist quality for which I struggle to find a comparison. The languid flow of the camerawork, allowing us to absorb each shot, the lingering close-ups of the wonderfully expressive performances of Kaydanovskiy and Solonitsyn particularly, suck you almost into a trance at times.

I’m sure it’s possible to let all of this good stuff simply wash over you and enjoy the imagery without even trying to dissect the film’s many themes too much. But there’s so much there that it seems a shame not to at least try to pick apart what it all means to you.

For me, the journey of the Stalker, the Writer and the Professor is a metaphor for life itself, and the three men each represent the vastly different approaches we can take to finding happiness within it – led by God, by art, by science. In reality we are of course complicated beings more than likely dominated by a combination of these things, in conflict with one another, just as the three men butt heads – like the writer mocking the Stalker with his crown of thorns, and the latter, near the end of the film, decrying lack of faith and the spread of cynicism. Their snaking, illogical route through the Zone is the similarly snaking one our lives take, stumbling around in the darkness in search of meaning and an ideal of desire fulfilment and contentment. The nature of the journey changes as our philosophy and mindset does, just as the Zone becomes crueller as the writer infects the group with his increasing agitation and scepticism. The journey, and the destination, is about so much less than giving us what we want, as much as revealing to us our deepest truths, things we wouldn’t admit even to ourselves. The “meat grinder” has this effect on the writer, who admits that his profession is a torment to him, and at the precipice of the Room we learn that a previous Stalker, “Porcupine,” learnt this same reality in the harshest of ways.

Be careful what you wish for, then. Whether it is indeed a real, magical place, or – more likely – a product of the imagination, the Room is a dangerous proposition, revealing not what we tell ourselves and others we desire, but what our true nature dictates we do. In this way, beyond the superficial (like the visual transition to colour), the comparisons to The Wizard of Oz are apt. The men ultimately find that what they seek is a facade, but not in the “you had it in you all along” kind of happy way of Fleming’s film. The men are ultimately shown the unattainability of what they set out to obtain.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen something that has felt so mysteriously resonant, made me think so much. I can’t pretend to have a theory about all of it, and maybe mine is the shallowest of possible interpretations. But it has made me keen to revisit and dig deeper into the mystery.