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By David Finkelstein | May 13, 2002

A young night watchman at the Chekov Museum discovers a strange, bearded man in the bathroom taking a bath (in his clothes.) The man seems to take an extraordinary delight in the sensation of touching water. The guard, alarmed, tries to physically carry him out of the bathroom.

Soon the guard accepts the bearded man’s presence, and watches passively as the man makes a painstakingly slow examination of everything in the museum. He seems to want to experience the essence of each object, and invariably ends his examination by inhaling its fragrance. (He smells a piano, a writing tablet, and a silk shirt.) Gradually it becomes clear (although it is never explained) that the guest is in fact Anton Chekov, returned from the dead.
When the guard realizes this, he wants to know more about the afterlife. “Did you see my father there?” he asks, but apparently Chekov was all alone in the Great Beyond. “There are too many different floors there,” he complains. “Isn’t that a metaphor?” asks the guard. “Perhaps, perhaps they were really steps,” is the reply.

This exchange is typical of the sparse, elliptical and philosophical dialogue between the two men in this mostly visual film. Great stretches of the film are totally silent and remarkably static. Other sections have a soundtrack of wind, waves, and distantly barking dogs. 40 minutes into the film I was startled by the first appearance of music. A Mahler symphony plays as Chekov puts on his old dinner jacket, slowly savoring the experience of coming back to life. “I need a whole world,” he says, “you can’t put a man into a grave.” He insists on building a fire so that he can experience its heat, but, as soon as he is warm, goes out onto the balcony so that he can feel the cold. He spends a very long time sitting perfectly still in a violent snowstorm. A crane wanders by throughout the film, which both men kiss, feed, and talk to.

The dramatic black and white photography shows glares of light which erupt into the blackness of the nighttime museum. Chekov carries around a kerosene lamp which throws menacing shadows around, whereas the guard tends to throw on the electric lights. A final, gorgeous shot shows immense white clouds rolling slowly over a black hillside.

Although the guard is much more rigid and repressive than Chekov (“Don’t touch anything!” he warns), they gradually develop a tenderness for each other. The guard feeds Chekov, and gives him a warm blanket. Chekov tries to give the guard a medical examination (over his strenuous objections) and to give him medical advice. A haunting Mozart piano concerto plays as the two sit side by side at the film’s end. “I’m with you,” says the guard.

“Stone” portrays Chekov, as a writer/physician who is trained to observe life in all of its minute details, returning from the dead, and feeling an immense delight in the texture and rhythm of being alive. Like many of Sokurov’s other films, it encourages us to be aware of life as a precious and finite experience, and to treasure each sensation. It conveys this message in a completely nondidactic way, through a series of starkly beautiful and enigmatic episodes.

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