The Quietest Place in the World: Andrei Tarkovsky’s STALKER

As the audience excitedly filed into the theater last Saturday, a wall resembling smooth stones gently slid shut behind them, enclosing the space. “The abattoir!” Montclair Film Executive Director Tom Hall quipped through a mischievous grin, fiendishly rubbing his hands together.

But the beautiful, new Investors Bank Film & Media Center on Bloomfield Avenue is certainly no TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE farmhouse; with its oversized, plush, royal-blue seats, its expansive arm rests, and its massive screen, Montclair Film’s Cinema 505 is a haven of comfort and style for film lovers. Typically, an audience avoids the first and last rows, dreading the stiff necks and strained eyes that accompany them, but miraculously, Montclair Film has designed Cinema 505 so that there isn’t a bad seat in the house.

Photo by Neil Grabowsky / Montclair Film

Photo by Neil Grabowsky / Montclair FilmThen again, there is little that’s “typical” about Montclair Film: of the first film to grace the new screen—an impeccable 2K restoration of Andrei Tarkovsky’s eerie, meditative masterpiece STALKER—Hall marveled, “We are getting it here before Lincoln Center.”  Ordinarily, that is not the way it works, but it’s a testament to the Festival’s steadily increasing clout and tireless dedication to providing the community with an unrivaled cinematic experience.

And the rivals are few when it comes to STALKER. Originally released in 1979, the film takes place in the near future, in a burned-out wasteland marred by the ravages of industrialization and war, reminiscent both of the nuclear fallout of Chernobyl and the oppressive gulags of the former Soviet Union. At the far edge of an unknown village lies the Zone, a strange, shifting expanse that defies natural and temporal law; in it, according to rumor, is a Room that grants the innermost desires of anyone who enters.

The path there, of course, is perilous, as the route is blocked by barbed wire fences and guarded by heavily armed police, with more metaphysical dangers beyond. Those seeking the blessings of this Room must employ the services of a Stalker, a guide who can navigate the Zone’s many deadly traps and uncover the storied treasure within. One such Stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovsky), against the pleas of his distraught wife (Alisa Freindlich), has been hired by a cynical Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and a stoic Professor (Nikolay Grinko) to help them infiltrate the Zone in their pursuit of inspiration and knowledge. The film follows their journey from the sepia grime of the village to the lush, full-color grasses and foreboding tunnels of the Zone, raising numerous hopes, doubts, and philosophical queries along the way.

The 2K restoration, spearheaded by Janus Films, is a breathtaking spectacle. One fear among Tarkovsky enthusiasts was that the restoration would prove too slick, sacrificing the film’s trademark grit in order to sharpen the picture. However, while the clarity of the picture is indeed much sharper, the film loses none of the grime and smoke that serve as supporting characters throughout. For instance, toward the beginning of their journey, the group of men takes a secret, twisting ride in a jeep through the town, often splashing through dirty puddles and shrouded by an ominous mist. The digital restoration neither softens nor diminishes these features; rather, it accentuates the swirling churn of the fog, the filth of the mud-smudged windows, the drips of perspiration leaking from the crags of men’s foreheads. The colors have deepened such that the bronze monotone of the village feels even more otherworldly, contrasting more strikingly with the gray and Viridian hues of the Zone. And the new English translation infuses more nuance and insight into the subtitles.

Photo by Tom Hall / Montclair Film

In the film, the Stalker refers to the Zone as “the quietest place in the world.”  As the audience leaned forward in their chairs, transfixed by the mystery unfolding onscreen, it seemed Cinema 505 had earned that title for itself.  For this reason, as he introduced the film, Tom Hall affectionately dubbed the audience “my people.”  Judging from the packed rows and sold-out tickets, the feeling was very much mutual.

The 2K restoration of STALKER will be released on Blu Ray and DVD by The Criterion Collection on July 18.

Written by MFF Blogger Michael Traynor