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Glyphs & Graphs is a writing experiment by Naveen Srivatsav - an attempt at hypertext wordplay, intentionally amorphous thought experiments non-committal to any specific genre or topic. Enjoy, and feel free to reach out via social media.

The priest, the cynic and the scientist

Poster for Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker

Poster for Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker

Finally made time to sit through Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979). Definitely on the long side just short of 3 hours, and not necessarily because of the number of plot twists. I figured I might spend some time reflecting on the film since I think best when I write.

A quick introduction for the uninitiated. Inspired by a sci-fi novella called "Roadside Picnic", the film revolves around the Zone, where strange anomalies and mysterious artefacts have been sighted since a meteorite crashed there a long time ago. Highly radioactive, it is uninhabited and said to be dangerous and unpredictable. However, some people have a remarkable affinity to the Zone and are able to navigate through this terrain, earning the title of "Stalker". There is also an urban myth that at the very centre of the Zone, there is a room that grants the deepest wishes of those who dare to seek it out. The novella apparently relishes in descriptions of an extra-terrestrial presence, but this is where the film and the book part ways.

Tarkovsky's depiction of the Zone is highly reminiscent of the unruly but not-really-special wilderness around Chernobyl, and his stalker is not so much a brave adventurer as he is an idiot savant with an almost religious awe of the Zone. The visuals too are starkly terrestrial, all too mundane, with not a hint of scifi gizmos or special effects. At no point do we actually see any of the anomalies of the Zone, or glimpse the magic of the wish-granting room, even though so much of the dialogue revolves around warnings of how capricious the Zone is in hushed whispers. So what's happening here is that Tarkovsky effectively transfers the burden of belief in the Zone's alleged powers to us, the viewers. And that's why my take on the film is that the main characters of the film represent three attitudes to faith (or the unknown).

The three protagonists in the film are the Stalker, the Writer and the Professor. No names are exchanged, and yet if we want to be a bit more specific, we could say that the Stalker is much like a priest who worships the Zone, the Writer a has-been alcoholic cynic and the Professor a self-righteous scientist. All three men know it is dangerous to even approach the Zone, let alone enter it, and yet they are seduced by the myth of the wish-granting room. Why else would they risk life and limb to go anyway?

(An interesting aside: Tarkovsky transforms the colour palette from sepia to colour once the men enter the Zone. Quite an effect. I interpret the arrival of colour in the film as a representation of innocence, a sense of who-knows-what-could-happen-next, that is sorely absent in the machine-like predictability and moral vaccuum of the world outside.)

Let's contrast the three men's attitude and reaction to the invisible power of the Zone. The Stalker believes in the power of the Zone blindly, and he speaks of the wish-granting room as the last hope for the wretched souls of the world. Ironically, the Stalker himself has never been inside the room as the Zone allegedly will destroy any Stalker who enters with ulterior motives. Only after this revelation do the companions understand that the Stalker is sincere in his devotion to the Zone. The Writer's cynicism is exposed as the wilted remains of a desire to become an author celebrated by history. 'Why go on, why make art, if the dream of literary immortality is forever out of reach?' he asks. The Writer's bitterness then only leads him to question if the Zone is really all the Stalker says it is, or whether the wish-granting room is just a figment of the idiot's imagination. It seems too good to be true, in his unforgiving worldview. The Professor reveals his hidden card just outside the wish-granting room, when he is somewhat convinced by inexplicable coincidences that there might be some truth to the magic of the room after all. He assembles a portable bomb, and claims it is in the best interest of mankind that the room be destroyed, for what if it falls into the wrong hands? Here the Professor betrays the hubris of an expert who takes it upon himself to decide for humanity as a whole. Also telling is the use of a bomb, a destructive use of science, to force his point-of-view, as opposed to convincing others with his intellect or his argumentation.

(Luckily, the bomb is not set off in the end. However, neither of the Stalker's companions enter the room and make a wish either, as they are secretly afraid of their deepest wish might not be what they expect.)

There is no mistaking that the Zone is a veiled allegory to faith, the unknown or a sense of the invisible divine. Along similar lines, the wish-granting room could easily be interpreted as the ultimate answer to the deepest question, last hope for salvation or as heaven itself. The attitudes of the the three protagonists then are man's possible responses to this unbelievable unknown: blind optimism, fatalistic cynicism, and detached rejection. None of these sound wise or noble, if you ask me.

Tarkovsky hints at some catharsis at the end of the film. The Stalker returns to his wife, deeply hurt by his unappreciative companions who couldn't see the power of the Zone even when taken to its heart. His wife puts him to rest and breaks the fourth wall, suggesting that faith is not rewarded by the absence of misfortune, but by the well-deserved happiness upon overcoming trying times. I'll be pondering this for some time.

Ode to Werner Herzog

Religion & Discipline