My impression is that Stalker, the fifth and final film Andrei Tarkovsky made in the Soviet Union (customarily, one does not think of Soviet artists being allowed to up and leave the country to make movies in the decadent West, but I like to imagine that Goskino was just grateful to see him go), is his most popular and widely-seen outside of the base of hardcore cinephiles who are his natural constituency. And something would have to be, I suppose, and why not this one: it's a genre film more or less (more, that is to say, than most of his movies, and a good bit less thanย Solaris) and it gives us a fairly clear statement of one of its major themes right at the end, so there's a lot less of aย  "...what the hell?" response than with, e.g. Mirror. Still, it's pretty damn opaque in a lot of ways, and in absolutely no hurry to be found unreasonably enjoyable or watchable - I think it's easily the slowest-moving of his first five features, and that is not a fleet-footed batch of movies.

The film is based on the 1972 novel Roadside Picnic by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who also wrote the film's screenplay. Having not read the novel in question, I have only hearsay to go on, but my sense is that it's a hard sci-fi novel about how humanity would interact with the intrusion of an extraterrestrial ecosystem onto the Earth's service. Stalker is certainly not that. It is much more interested in emotions and mysticism, disregarding so much of the ordinary trappings of sci-fi that it's not even sure if there is an extraterrestrial explanation of the plot: the opening title card, which provides almost all of the sci-fi elements of the entire feature, gives us nothing more to go on than the information that at one point, a Zone appeared, a pocket of quasi-reality where the rules of the universe are different. And some people think it might have had something to do with, I dunno, an asteroid? I cannot help but note that this is precisely as much of an explanation, with precisely as much of an indifferent shrug, as George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead 11 years earlier, and for largely the same reason. Namely, this is a human story that cares about genre elements only insofar as they create a specific situation unusual enough that normal human activity will seem strange and magnified by the contrast with it.

Also, as in Night of the Living Dead, the humans in question are archetypes more than psychologically distinctive individuals, though Stalker goes far beyond that film, or most other films. This is one of those movies where all of the characters are nouns: the Stalker's Wife (Alisa Freindlich), the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky), the Writer (Tarkosvky favorite Anatoly Solonitsyn), the Professor (Nikolai Grinko, overdubbed by Sergei Yakovlev). And it's also the kind of film in which having a Writer and a Professor is significant in and of itself. As for the Stalker, that's the term used to describe the men who guide the curious or desperate into the Zone, dodging all of the military police and other governmental traps to keep people from entering the Zone. As for why anyone would wish to go to the trouble, it's because there is supposed to be a Room at the heart of the Zone, and to enter this Room is to be granted the innermost desire of one's heart.

I'm no fan of digging into stories for their symbolism, but sometimes there's just nothing else, and all of those capitalised nouns make clear, Stalker is a heavily symbolic work. Specifically, it is a work about Christianity - unmistakably so, though it doesn't explicitly talk about religion, the way that Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev had done. Still, there's really no mistaking how the film presents a heartfelt declaration of misery and sorrow that the repressive Soviet government, aided and abetted by the creators of culture and officially-sanctioned knowledge, have made it impossible to embrace spirituality, religion; things that offer a feeling of hope that there might be better things than the grim, decaying world of Russia in the 1970s. The film ends with the stalker in a state of despondency that his ability to lead people is worth nothing if they do not have faith - that's the particular word he uses, "faith" - and there has already to this point been pointed Christ imagery in the form of a crown of thorns. It's probably the clearest statement of theme in any Tarkovsky film, and the only reason it doesn't feel completely flat-footed is because the final sequence is played as a characters beat for the stalker and his family, the only part of the film that's treated more like a psychological study than a collection of ideas, moods, and moral arguments. Despite this, the film doesn't seem to have been caught up by the censors at all; the only problems facing Stalker (and they were massive problems) were technical in nature, when all of the outdoor scenes, having been shot, needed to be discarded because of the film stock used.

As blunt as the film can be, it never feels artless or didactic. On the contrary, the enormously long climactic scene where the stalker, the writer, and the professor stand on the threshold of the Room and discuss at great length the merits and terrors of being put into confrontation with one's innermost desires is one of the film's most enthralling: the performers go through such a whirlwind of emotional states, and the film cuts so judiciously between close-ups that show their anguished, weathered faces and wide shots that position them in the otherworldly ruin of the Zone, that even what amounts to a wordy disagreement with everybody sharing their thought processes at great length feels rhythmic and cinematic. Particularly when it culminates in the film's one openly fantastical moment, portrayed without comment in an extreme long shot that goes on for several motionless minutes, along the weight of the moment to sink in.

The climax works because Stalker has spent all of its expansive running time (it is 162 minutes in total) preparing us for this sequence. It is a powerfully slow motion picture, full of these moments where things just stop, so we can absorb the feeling of moments; there is a single-shot scene on a train that the three men have jumped onto to sneak into the Zone, that goes on for a small infinity, while the rhythmic clacking sound of the train track places forward momentum on the static image, and from this point forward, Stalker will have enormous success in stopping things cold and letting us soak in the atmosphere of the moment, and it frequently does this in part by piping in sound effects that don't belong there. These are often elements of the remarkable experimental score by Eduard Artemyev, which combines musicalised noise with snatches of music point to the Central Asian Soviet Republics without so far as I can tell gesturing towards any one of them in particular. And this music, too, significantly guides our reaction to the images, though I suspect that reaction is so specific and internal that it wouldn't be fair of me to insist on my feelings in these shots as being "right".

As all of that suggests, I think that Stalker is a movie much more profoundly and fundamentally about the mood it creates and the atmosphere it evokes than the questions it raises about whether there is space for religious ecstasy in the modern world, and what to make of the intellectuals who reject that ecstasy out of scorn and fear. For one thing, those questions only work because of the film's mood: it's the difference between a petulant harangue and the genuinely transporting feeling of the film. In other words, to explore the power and terror of mysticism, you first need to create a genuinely mystical feeling within the film, and Stalker does this as well as anything I can name. It starts with the simplest of all possible ingredients, a well-chosen location: this was shot in Estonia, around an abandoned power plant near the capital city of Tallinn. The location was downstream from a chemical factory, resulting in a small river that was choked with pollutants, and this proved to be one of the defining visual elements of the film; the others are waist-high weeds and large chunks of indeterminate industrial scrap rising like ancient boulders out of those weeds. And perhaps the most defining element of all: light fog. My Lord, but Stalker is an overcast film. When the film stock proved unusual and the film had to be shot from scratch, Tarkovsky replaced cinematographer Georgy Rerberg (who shot Mirror) with Alexander Knyazhinsky, whose work on the Zone exteriors is some of the most striking footage of Tarkovsky's entire career. There's nothing quite like completely diffuse, overcast lighting to give colors a kind of soft glow, and the sheer quantity of green in the Zone, contrasting with the grey of the skies, gives the whole thing a feeling of primordial beauty. At the same time, it feels appallingly corrupt and corroded, the whole world is rotting away - which is kind of true, after all. This is, in its way, a post-apocalyptic space, growing more and more so as we get close to the abandoned buildings, with their stony wet faces - this is an extraordinarily damp movie even before the river and its floating plumes of sensuously coruscating filth become a major component of the imagery. The stark loneliness of the buildings, augmented by the hazy, diffuse lighting and the hollow sound effects that show up just often enough to call attention to how godforsaken and quiet everything is, evokes a sense of post-human ruin like nothing else I can name. The feeling of the film is at one and the same time that nature is reclaiming its rightful place over failed human settlement, but also that nature has itself gone deeply wrong.

This is, at least, the film's long middle. It opens and closes with scenes outside of the Zone, which are shot in gorgeously inhumane amber-tinted monochrome footage that appears to have had its contrast boosted just enough to make the whites (that is, the lightest yellows) so strong that it almost hurts. The interplay of full color and monochrome footage is in one sense straightforward: it marks where we are in space. There are three exceptions, once where monochromatic footage is used in the Zone, and twice, very close together, when we see footage outside of the Zone in color, and in all of these cases it seems to correspond to the amount of despair felt (or not) by the individual anchoring the shot. For that's the other thing that distinguishes these two approaches to color. Inside the Zone is a bit decayed and washed-out, but it's also deeply verdant, with those greens radiating right off the screen. Outside of the Zone, the strong contrast is breathtakingly beautiful, but it's poisonous, like the whole world is caked in smog. It feels corrupt and toxic in it scorching yellowness, and the shifts into color give me, at least a feeling of shocked relief. And if the Zone represents, in the film's very loud metaphor, some attempt from outside humanity to give humans access to something Godlike if it's not actually God, whether it's good for us or not, that relief is exactly as it should be. The Zone represents life and hope after a fashion, albeit life and hope that are hazy and grey and suffused with a distinct aura of mold and rot. Which is about the correct amount of hope for a Tarkovsky film.

In addition to this bold (albeit fairly straightforward) play with color, the other major cinematographic strategy used in Stalker is to carefully manipulate shot scale. The film's default state is a wide shot, often one that goes on for a very long time (the average shot length is over a minute). They are sometimes very still, but generally involve a good amount of staging in depth, as the three men move around each, ceding prominence and then trying to grab it back; at times, there's a bit of slow, deliberate camera movement involved, as the very gradual track-in towards the three men gathered around a table in the bar where they first meet to go on their journey, one that stops in the middle, as though unsure that it wants to get any closer to them. This speaks to the film's extremely judicious use of closer shots (it almost never moves nearer than a medium close-up), which feel extremely shocking when they show up, after minutes and minutes of wide shots; they also start to increase as the film goes on and the characters grow close to the moment they'll need to decided whether or not they can confront themselves in the Room. Stalker turns out to be be phenomenal at framing heads, as it reaches this point, finding in Kaidanovsky's stubble and the triangular white patch of fuzz over his ear, Solonitsyn's receding hairline and furrowed brow, and Grinko's whispy combover an extraordinary mixture of textures that make the three men all have surprisingly different visual weight, given their similarities; it also puts us so close to the back and topย  of their heads that it feels worryingly like we might fall through their skulls as we try to figure out what's going on in their brains. For as little as the film actually wants to play with detailed psychology prior to its final sequence, preferring to remain in the realm of philosophical debates between archetypes, the way it positions us relative to the characters makes it hard not to wonder who the men are behind these archetypes, and how they have managed to retain individual selves in a world that seems so abstract and inhumane. The religious allegory might be the film's biggest and most obvious play, but it is by no means the only one, and the more one stares at Stalker - something we are very much encouraged to do - the more that its images start to reveal layers and complexities that both enrich its allegorical storytelling and go much deeper into a study of the different ways that we our humanity can be challenged and preserved.