Ever since I spent a few months in Glasgow in 2000 and fell in love with the Glasgow Film Theatre, I’ve been hoping that a good repertory cinema would open a bit closer to home. Last autumn, that wish came true, when a local cinema that before had mostly shown B movies along the lines of The Core and The Extraordinary League of Gentlemen was refurnished and turned into a cinematic time capsule. They show some current arthouse fare at the Kino Rex Bern, but mostly they show classics, whether American, European or otherwise, and organise series on particular themes or filmmakers.
Which is how I finally managed to catch Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker on a big screen. I’d previously seen the film on a DVD that sported okay images but featured French subtitles during the first part and English during the second – and while my French is serviceable, I’m not sure that was the best way to see Stalker for the first time. Even like this Tarkovsky’s arthouse road movie of sorts left an impression, but I wasn’t entirely sure whether it was the idea of the film or the actual thing.
Seeing Stalker on a big screen confirmed that it was very much the latter. There are people who find Tarkovsky soporific (I’m looking at you, Charlotte), but at least Stalker is magical to me. It’s a long, undoubtedly slow film, and there’s little that happens in any literal way, but it never bores me. While it’s a largely meditative affair, there’s a sly, earthy quality that’s brought to its metaphysical musings by some of the character exchanges, and there are surprising yet perfectly timed moments of deadpan absurd humour. I understand why some people find Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey cold and lacking in humanity (its digital character, HAL 9000, is arguably more human than the flesh-and-blood protagonists), but Stalker, while on the surface it may seem to appeal to similar cinematic sensitivities, has a warmth that makes it entirely different. For all its metaphysical musings on belief, it isn’t interested in religion or in an abstract God, but in concrete human beings and their need for or fear of belief, in something, in anything; first and foremost, in hope.
Smarter people – who have seen Stalker many more times than I have – will have smarter things to say about the film than I have. What I can perhaps contribute is a call to those who aren’t entirely averse to meditative, subtitled arthouse cinema but who so far have avoided Tarkovsky for one reason or another. Give him a chance. Take a trip down those train tracks to the Zone. There are such sights it would show you.
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