Food, Humanity, and the Supernatural
In 1972, acclaimed Russian science fiction authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky published Roadside Picnic, a SF novel that imagines the aftermath of earth’s first encounter with aliens in which people known as “stalkers” venture into the abandoned Zones affected by the visitation to retrieve alien artifacts. In 1979, Andrei Tarkovsky adapted this novel into the SF film Stalker, in which three men, known only by their respective professions of Stalker, Writer, and Professor, enter an alien Zone in search of the Room at its center that is alleged to grant wishes. In the Strugatsky brothers’ original novel, when two characters discuss the alien visitation, one of the them compares the visitation to a “picnic by the side of some space road” (132). In this analogy, the aliens are like picnickers who briefly stopped on Earth and then moved on, leaving strange debris behind for the humans, like woodland creatures creeping out after the picnickers leave, to discover (131-132). Through this food metaphor, the authors of Roadside Picnic pose deep ontological questions such as what it means to be human in the face of an alien other.
The Strugatsky brothers’ titular analogy provides the framework for Tarkovsky’s film adaptation Stalker, which similarly employs imagery of food and drink to question human nature in relation to the unknown and the spiritual through visual references to the well-known icon The Holy Trinity by the 15th century Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev. In this icon, three divine figures sit around a table partaking in the distinctly human act of eating a meal and thereby associating the human with the supernatural (see Figure 1). Since its creation, Rublev’s icon has become a national symbol of Russia, and Tarkovsky has repeatedly drawn on it as a characteristic motif in several of his films. Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Andrei Rublev daringly explores religion and Russian history in a monumental film that culminates in the creation of this same icon. Three years later, Tarkovsky directed his first SF film, Solaris, in which the space-travelling protagonist decorates his confined living quarters in a nearly abandoned space station with a reproduction of Rublev’s The Holy Trinity icon as a comforting reminder of his homeland. Finally, Tarkovsky frames the beginning and the end of his 1979 Stalker with another visual reference to this icon.
At the beginning of Stalker, Tarkovsky focuses the camera on the characters Stalker, Writer, and Professor, who stand around a bar with drinks in a pose deliberately reminiscent of the three divine beings sitting around a table in The Holy Trinity (see Figure 2). Stalker, Writer, and Professor discuss complex philosophical themes such as the nature and purpose of work and existence over their drinks before entering the alien Zone to have their wishes granted by the mysterious Room at its heart. The long film that follows tracks the three protagonists as they wander through the empty Zone, discussing further philosophical questions and eventually returning without ever actually entering the Room. Upon their return near the end of the film, they gather around the same table in the same bar and assume practically the same poses as before, standing in silence for several minutes before departing (see Figure 3). These two incidents where people drink around a table foreshadow the final scene of the film, which is one of the only scenes shot in color in the entire film apart from those that take place in the alien Zone. In this scene, Stalker’s crippled daughter sits alone at a table, bringing to mind the central figure of Rublev’s The Holy Trinity, and appears to telekinetically move a trinity of glasses across the surface of the table (see Figure 4).
Ultimately, the significance of Tarkovsky’s repeated, thematical references to Rublev’s The Holy Trinity icon remains ambiguous and open to various interpretations, as does the rest of the film. However, these visual references take on unmistakably ironic and subversive religious overtones when viewed both within the context of the totalitarian Soviet Union in which this film was produced and in connection with the director’s repeated previous uses of Rublev’s icon in his other works. Tarkovsky wrote in his dairy that Stalker “is about the existence of God in man, and about the death of spirituality as a result of our possessing false knowledge” (qtd. in David). This statement suggests that the director’s allusion to Rublev’s icon in Stalker serves both as a critique of religious repression in the Soviet Union and as a way of exploring the relationship of humanity and divinity through the imagery of drink. The framing device of the repeated bar scenes unites the diegetic narrative of Stalker into a comprehensive whole, inviting the reader to consider not only the place of drinking within human society but also, through its symbolic fusion of the material and the divine, the place of humanity in relation to the rest of the cosmos.
Tarkovsky’s contemplations on the duality of drinking as human and supernatural culminate in the final moments of the film and suggest the existence of phenomena beyond the scope of human comprehension. As a result, Tarkovsky’s complex use of drink imagery in Stalker creates a thought-provoking narrative whose significance, like that of existence itself, resists fixed interpretations and thereby captivates the imagination.
David, Eric. “‘The Man Who Saw the Angel.’” Christianity Today, Christianity Today, 24 July 2007, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/julyweb-only/foftarkovsky.html.
Rublev, Andrei. The Holy Trinity. C. 1411, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia. Christian Art: Icons, Murals, Mosaics, Orthodox Christianity on the Web, n. d., http://www.icon-art.info/masterpiece.php?lng=en&mst_id=161. Image.
Stalker. 1979. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Soviet and Russian Films with English Subtitles, sovietfilmsonline.com/fantastic/7-stalker.html. Film.
Strugatsky, Arkady, and Boris Strugatsky. Roadside Picnic. Translated by Olena Bormashenko, Chicago Review Press, 2012. Print.