Letter Never Sent (1959)
Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
Cast: Tatyana Samoylova, Evgeniy Urbanskiy, Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy
Plot: Four geologists are searching for diamonds in the wilderness of Siberia.
Awards: Nom. for Palme d'Or (Cannes).
A dizzying blend of virtuoso camerawork and risky on-location shoot make this post-war feature from the then Soviet Union a fascinating watch. The cinematography is the key highlight as Sergei Urusevsky, working with director Mikhail Kalatozov, delivers some stunning footage that needs to be seen to be believed.
Using long takes that weave through thick shrubbery, then stopping for a close-up on a character's anxious and tortured face, before it continues in another seemingly freewheeling shot, Letter Never Sent is a showcase of technique and technical prowess as the filmmakers play with lighting, shadows, angles and occasionally toying with the camera-as-person perspective to tell the story.
The story, about geological exploration and survival in the Siberian wilderness, is mostly powered by the film's cinematography. Without it, Letter Never Sent would have only been half as good. This is quite unusual for films of such a 'genre' because the kinds of stories tackled often have a triumphant humanistic quality that propel the narrative and sustain the viewer's interest.
However, the storytelling in Kalatozov's film is rather conventional, or to be critical, quite flat. The characters, four of them in total, are not exactly interesting on their own, though their performances reflect the demanding, even dangerous nature of their work.
In many scenes in the second half of the film, these actors appear to be surrounded by wild forest fires as they struggle to escape the deathly blaze and heat. It is a plot element that arises from natural circumstance rather than a man-made one, and this splits Letter Never Sent into its two halves: exploration, and then survival.
Although the story revolves around those two themes, it somewhat veers towards a nationalistic treatment – the toiling and sacrifices of unsung ‘comrades’ to give the country a more prosperous and better future. In one instance, a character dreams of a colonized Siberia with semblance of civilization as he battles sub-zero temperatures.
Kalatozov, who won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his international breakthrough work The Cranes are Flying (1957), is a fine filmmaker. Letter Never Sent is the lesser known picture of 1959, compared to Grigoriy Chukhray’s Ballad of a Soldier, both of which also competed at Cannes. Three years later, the legendary Andrei Tarkovsky made his first feature Ivan’s Childhood (1962), winning the Golden Lion at Venice.
The spotlight on Russian cinema had never shone brighter then, and it continues to enthral audiences till this day with films by Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return, 2003; Elena, 2011) and Aleksandr Sokurov (Russian Ark, 2002; Faust, 2011), among many others paving the way.
GRADE: B (7.5/10 or 3.5 stars)
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