Letter Never Sent (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1960)

Francois Truffaut once described CinemaScope as an aquarium that allows the actors to move around more naturally. Mikhail Kalatozov’s Letter Never Sent is so beautiful as to make one think that the film, shot in the standard 1.33:1 aspect ratio, is actually in Scope. Kalatozov and his cinematographer Sergei Urusevesky are pure visionaries here in the way they capture their characters and settings, whether they are on location or in a studio, both camera and in-frame movement are complex. Similarly, perfect lighting allows the film to alternate between realistic shots, expressionistic shadowy ones, and surreal superimpositions. One minute you see a string of silhouettes trekking across the hills as the camera tracks slowly to the right, the next you see an extreme close-up of a character’s face in profile, and then a spinning evocation of Tanya’s thought, all potently emotional.

But those are the simple shots, or at least, the simple things about the best shots. What really makes Truffaut’s quote ring true are the lengthy, mobile shots that force—or rather allow—the handheld camera and the actors to dance with one another. During a forest fire or a hunting trip in the woods, obstacles come between the camera and actor and we are treated to glides and swoops in order to keep the action close. Other times, the camera will move freely on all three axes in a single conversation, getting closer and then further from the characters as they talk or revolving slightly to emphasize a different face. The forest fire that much of the film takes place in is vivid enough to make one think they were shooting in the middle of an actual forest fire. The glisten of the knee-high water and the burning branches that cut across it provides a memorable scene that would re-surface in part in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood just a couple years later. In addition to fire, the duo stages one of their most elaborate shots on a rainy soundstage that blends in seamlessly with the location shots. Likewise, a fantasy scene in the snow is perhaps the most unforgettable part of the whole film. It’s difficult to think of another film that captures such a wide range of elements as magnificently as Letter Never Sent.

Cinematographically, then, it’s everything a movie could possibly be. Narratively, it has a few shortcomings. Four geologists are dropped off in Siberia to search for diamonds that may or may not exist. If they do, they will be responsible for an industrial revolution that allows the Soviet Union to relinquish dependence on foreign diamonds and help them into the space race lead (the film is dedicated to the pioneers of both land and space). More important to Kalatozov than the work, however, is the romance that comes with it. Sabinin (Innokenti Smoktunovsky) is the author of an unsent letter, directed to his wife, Vera, in which he waxes philosophical and details events and emotions. The content of these letters is evoked heavily by superimposing images of home and an angelic Vera over Sabinin as he writes. Sergei (Yevgeni Urbansky) also writes an unsent letter in which he professes his love for Tanya, which is found by Andrei and creates cause for discussion about love, morality, and selfishness. Superimpositions this time show flames, which foreshadow future events and symbolizes the intensity of his feelings. It’s when the group is talking about actually finding diamonds that the film is least interesting; we quickly learn that Sergei is much more pessimistic than Tanya (Tatiana Samoilova) and her lover Andrei (Vasili Livanov), but the romantic conversations probe into more humanist issues.

The issue arises, then, when the film transforms from a search for diamonds to an escape from a forest fire. The survivalist passage does not bear much resemblance to the romantic passage; the letters become far less integral to the themes and narrative; the characters are never developed as fully as they should be, and perhaps most importantly the conversation becomes far more plot-based than ideology-based. Nonetheless, the socialist themes, that the actions of this group is for the good of the country, that self-sacrifice is a great thing if it leads to the betterment of the country, run throughout. The initial dedication may say all that needs to be said about the film’s subtext, but the film’s beauty ensures that familiarity and overt politics instead feel like profound simplicity and humanism. Indeed, one could see as needlessly heroic what another sees as a moving story of perseverance and dedication even in a detached and isolated situation—as when the radio loses its ability to transmit. Letter Never Sent may have somewhat disappointing characters, but nothing else about it registers as such.

Grade: A-

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