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Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
review by Gary Couzens
The Zone is a landscape, sealed off from the rest of civilization, a ruined landscape laid with traps. Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) is one of the few people able to make their way through. He is hired by a writer (Anatoly Solinitsyn) and a professor (Nikolai Grinko) to help them find the Room, which is said to grant the innermost wishes of those who survive the trek.
Boris and Arkady Strugatski, brothers who wrote usually as a team, were leading figures in Soviet science fiction from the 1960s. Their short novel Piknik na obochine (1972), which had its English translation in 1977 as Roadside Picnic, tells the story of an Earth where mysterious aliens have come and gone, as if stopping for a picnic by the roadside, leaving all manner of strange and inexplicable litter behind... and it remains inexplicable by the end of the novel. The Strugatskis wrote the screenplay for Stalker, which is some distance from the novel: Tarkovsky went as far as to write a letter of apology to the Strugatskis for removing most of the overtly science fictional elements from their screenplay. In fact the film had to be reshot, after a laboratory error made the original footage unusable; the second version was much changed from the lost first one, and is considerably different from the screenplay that the Strugatskis wrote.
Tarkovsky's earlier films, although they show his distinctive directorial style, are more recognisably genre: a war film (Ivan's Childhood), a historical epic (Andrei Rublev) and science fiction (Solaris). With 1974's Mirror, his work took a turn towards something more inward, personal and mystical, and at times private to the point of being obscure. While Stalker is still SF on the surface (and, like Solaris, is an adaptation of a novel by a leading East European SF writer), the genre elements are de-emphasised.
Tarkovsky's style is very much in the European art house tradition: long, slow takes ask the viewer to absorb a considerable amount of fine visual detail. The landscape becomes in effect a character in the film, and composition and duration tell the story rather than cutting (which is the Hollywood way). An adjustment needs to be made to the film's very slow pace, and overtly philosophical dialogue, but once made the film holds an audience in its grip for two and a half hours. There are images in this film you won't easily forget. By this time, Tarkovsky was mixing colour and monochrome in increasingly intricate ways: the Zone itself is in muted colour, while the scenes outside (making up the first 40 minutes or so) are in sepia.
Tarkovsky's films are best seen in good 35mm prints on a big screen, but DVD is an acceptable second best. This Artificial Eye release is licenced from the Russia Cinema Council, who are midway through a project to release 120 classics of Soviet cinema on DVD. This includes all five of Tarkovsky's Russian-made features. The film is split over two discs (63 and 92 minutes), breaking at the original intermission point and is presented in its original Academy ratio (4:3). The dialogue is in the original Russian, with 12 subtitle options. There are two soundtracks, the original mono (in Dolby digital 1.0) and a remix in Dolby digital 5.1. It should be said that there were complaints about the remixed sound on the original Ruscico release, as it made Tarkovsky's intentionally subtle use of music - snatches of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony mixed with train noises at the end of the film - much more overt. Ruscico withdrew the disc and reissued with the mono soundtrack included, and that is the version Artificial Eye are releasing in the UK.
DVD extras: interviews with director of photography Alexander Knyazhinsky, production designer Rashit Safiullin, and composer Eduard Artemiev; cast and crew biographies and filmographies (Artemiev's contains not just his interview but a trailer for Solaris), a stills gallery, and a five-minute extract from Tarkovsky's diploma short film The Steamroller And The Violin. All the extras are in Russian with five subtitle options.
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