Criterion Collection · Drama · Soviet Union

#601 Letter Never Sent (1959)

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Criterion Challenge #601

Letter Never Sent

1959 // Soviet Union // Mikhail Kalatozov
Spine #601
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Four explorers descended (literally, as shown by the rising opening shot presumably taken from a helicopter) onto the land of Siberia plateau, looking for diamonds as suggested by some geographical evidence. Reminding me of the gold prospecting in THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE (1948 // Dir: John Huston), or the surveying expedition in DERSU UZALA (1975 // Dir: Akira Kurosawa). The former one dealt with the corrupting force of greed, while the later one was more like a character study. LETTER NEVER SENT had none of the above. Albeit, by comparison, LETTER NEVER SENT may sound inferior, it surely was an exhilarating and engrossing journey. Occasionally, one may find a hidden gem, like LETTER NEVER SENT, in the vast films of Criterion Collection that they never heard of. Even viewed within the filmography of the Soviet Union director Mikhail Kalatozov, LETTER NEVER SENT was undeniably less well-known than Mikhail’s previous Palme d’Or work THE CRANES ARE FLYING (1957, also released in Criterion), or the late rediscovered masterpiece I AM CUBA (1964). Ironically, LETTER NEVER SENT was the only one released in high definition format up until now, giving it a second chance to be judged and appreciated.

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The expedition, comprised of a guide and three geologists, were lead by the level-headed Sabinin (Innokenti Smoktunovsky), whose epistle to his city-bounded wife Vera (Galina Kozhakina) gave the film’s lyrical name. The first half of the film focused on the arduous task of finding the diamonds, which was believed to be the essential elements in aiding the industrial revolution and winning the space race for the motherland. The socialist ideology and the favor of collectivism over individualism were the backbone of the entire expedition. Yet the momentum of the storyline came from the individual tension among the group, the masculine location guide Sergei (Yevgeny Urbansky) had a not-so-secretive love crush on the amiable Tanya (Tatiana Samoilova), who was the only female companion as well as the lover of the bespectacled scholarly-looked Andrei (Vasili Livanov). The love triangle caused some serious strains between Sergei and Andrei in a hunting scene, as well as precipitated to a seductive moment between Sergei and Tanya in a pit. This emotional tension was regrettably resolved in a over-convenient way with one of the character died in the middle of the film.

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On the other hand, Sabinin, whose voice-over narration on his writing gave the audience an impression of acting as the main protagonist, likewise the viewpoint of the audience, was very much sidelined storywise. The dissolve to the amorous and affectionate scenes between Sabinin and his wife during the epistle narration were exquisitely shot, yet fundamentally lackluster. The functionality as the sole linking to the outside world was obvious, and only paid off at the end of the film when Sabinin had a hallucination of his wife appearing on a drifting raft with him. In the second half of the film, the story took a sharp and unexpected turn from an expedition drama into a survival story in an unrelenting wildland. Firstly the blazing forest conflagration took a character’s life and injured another. Subsequently, the explorers were brutally challenged by the ruthless rains and flood, and then followed by a frigid blizzard. The season was changed from autumn to winter, still the mother nature had no signs of forgiving as they discovered the location of diamonds. The film, as Mikhail explained with a short introductory before the credits, was a dedication to the pioneers in exploration (both the barren land and the mysterious space). Instead of acting like a pure propaganda film, LETTER NEVER SENT was executed with the respect to perseverance and endurance of his fellow countrymen. Sabinin’s hallucination scene, as mentioned above, included a display of the spirited industrial success after the presumably discovery, thus the extraction of the diamonds. The message for “The Greater Good” was loud and clear. Yet one may wonder how the disposability of individuals was viewed by the higher officials, as reflected by the broken radio which could only received the message and instructions from the party, but not vice versa.

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The crucial and indisputable achievement in LETTER NEVER SENT was the cinematography by Sergey Urusevsky, who also collaborated with Mikhail Kalatozov on THE CRANES ARE FLYING and I AM CUBA. The fluidity of cinema movement and the precise use of Dutch angle provided a sense of presence and urgency. The camera maneuvered around the barren land or the wildly grown weeds, dodged the gleaming flame and the frozen snow as the characters strode forward. It was almost like a dance of Waltz with the characters in a symphonic rhythm. The profound contrast on black and white often put the characters in the silhouette on the background, in couple of scenes, the foreground would be filled by the gleaming flame of the camp fire, signifying the hellish environment and foreshadowing the latter catastrophe. Sergey Urusevsky’s cinematography had been highly regarded, especially in I AM CUBA where the camera movement would be much more complex and spectacular, like the opening long shot down into a swimming pool, and most notably the cane shot over a parade between several blocks. One may also compare the cinematography of LETTER NEVER SENT to the work in THE ASCENT (1977 // Dir: Larisa Shepitko) and DERSU UZALA, the latter ones may lack the dynamic movement in LETTER MEVER SENT, but the glorious framing evidently influenced by the Sergey Urusevsky astonishing look on the harsh landscape.

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It was a great treat for Criterion Collection to release LETTER NEVER SENT in the English-friendly region. It was not the best work from Mikhail Kalatozov and Sergey Urusevsky, but definitely one of the greater ones. The story was uneven with the idealistic socialist message embedded in it, yet audacious and daring. One could have a great pleasure just from the appreciation of the cinema work alone, seek it out and watch it if you have not seen a single work from Mikhail Kalatozov, this film would be a great place to start with.

Film score: 4/5

Supplement: 2/5

Only a booklet, no video supplement, was included in the Criterion disk. Since it was priced lower than regularly stuffed release, it’s still a bargain to own it.
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