Consider this plot. And you would agree that it has the potential to become a gripping sci-fi mystery Hollywood thriller, full of unpredictable twists, visual effects, and action. But then you watch Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’ (1979), and find it completely different from your expectations. It is long (close to 165 minutes), slow (only 140 shots cover the entire film, many lasting more than four minutes), and demands extreme patience. Most of it is in sepia, devoid of colours, and there is hardly anything fantastic to watch, with no visual effects at all, except for some normal trickery in the celebrated closing shot of the film. Yet, it is one of the most acclaimed works of the Russian master. And I believe it is European Art Cinema at its best.
What Tarkovsky has achieved through his unique cinematic language is not a sci-fi thriller, but a poem in a sci-fi setting, not a roller-coaster ride through plot elements, but a study of the characters, going deep into their minds, and fears and obsessions, away from the materialistic scenario the plot promises to deliver. By consciously, and painfully so, staying away from the genre parameters, he has penned a novel on film, and has delivered one of the most personal and truly artistic movies ever made. I have always found Tarkovsky the most difficult filmmaker to watch, and did require more than one sitting to finish ‘Stalker’, but could watch it again as soon as it ended. The best of European cinema guarantee you this – that the movie experience will rise much above the promise made by the premise, genre conventions will be demolished under the powerful voice of the auteur, and the impact will last a lifetime, unlike the weekend Hollywood entertainer.
Following is the poem that ends the film. Read this and imagine how it can conclude a film that belongs to the sci-fi genre:
“I love your eyes, my darling friend,
Their play, so passionate and brightening,
When a sudden stare up you send,
And like a heaven-blown lightening,
It’d take in all from end to end.
“But there is more that I admire:
Your eyes when they’re downcast,
In bursts of love-inspired fire,
And through the eyelash goes fast,
A somber, dull, call of desire…”
P.S. Here is another plot:
Rome, 1938. A weak-willed Italian man, working for Mussollini, is ordered to assassinate his one-time professor in Paris. He takes his young and beautiful wife, whom he has just recently married, with him, for supposedly a honeymoon. But on reaching Paris, he discovers his professor has married a former love of his, and the two of them work together in their fight against the Fascists. Can our protagonist kill them both and fulfill his duty?
On the surface it appears like a regular political thriller. Watch Bernardo Bertolucci’s ‘The Conformist’ (1969) to discover how a piece of art, a visual masterpiece has been constructed from this. Nobody does it better than the Europeans.