Letter Never Sent Criterion Collection DVD Review: Kalatozov's Take on Man Vs. Nature

Diamonds aren't forever.
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Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky only worked together on three films, but each has left an indelible impression in the film world. The Cranes Are Flying (1957) and I Am Cuba (1964) are the more well-known, but Letter Never Sent (1959), also known as The Unsent Letter, is well worth a look, too.letter never sent

Those who are familiar with Urusevsky’s work know that his cinematographer is astounding from a technical standpoint. He broke new ground in the Soviet film world, innovating with handheld cameras, zoom techniques, and various unorthodox angles. These tricks of the trade, now largely commonplace, are at the forefront of what makes Letter Never Sent a very good picture.

The film centres on four members of a geological expedition to find diamonds in Siberia. The mission is a treacherous one, but the quartet is dedicated to the Fatherland and insists on completing the mission to help their beloved nation achieve independence from foreign diamonds. Sabinin (Innokenti Smoktunovsky) is the leader of the expedition, so to speak. He writes letters to his wife that, as the title indicates, aren’t sent.

Andrei (Vasili Livanov) and Tanya (Tatyana Samoilova) are a couple of geologists and they share a romantic relationship that the third geologist, a sneering and mean-looking mug named Sergei (Yevgeny Urbansky) is constantly jealous of. When Tanya finally does discover diamonds, the perilous journey home puts the four once more against nature as precarious situations mount.

There are some interesting dynamics between the characters and they are brought forth through a number of conversations, some about love and some about the socialist ethic. Andrei and Sergei tangle somewhat over Tanya, for instance, with Sergei stymied as to why the girl would be interested in a “cold fish” like Andrei. When Andrei insists that Sergei is an egoist, the latter is fine with the assertion.

While the work of the performers is fine, it’s the cinematography and scope of the project that makes this a special motion picture. Urusevsky and Kalatozov make great use of the black-and-white, using shadowing to provoke distance and obscurities, like tree branches or the presence of fire, to distance us from certain characters. The use of depth and space, too, helps put the characters right in the middle of “nowhere” with beautiful precision.

There have been many films that utilize the "man vs. nature" motif, of course. Letter Never Sent makes necessary heroes of the explorers, pitting them against a cruel and demanding Mother Nature (the Motherland, perhaps?) and letting us watch as they eke it out for survival and eventual prosperity at the hands of the grand cultivators of Soviet society. The vision is lavish, especially against the wall of the well-photographed natural world, but it’s still human - and humane.

Kalatozov’s Letter Never Sent has been cleaned up by the Criterion Collection for this DVD release. It is presented in its original aspect ratio and has a remastered soundtrack from the original monaural masters.

The DVD is lean on the special features, unfortunately. There are no trailers or commentaries for this rare film and no features to speak of apart from an essay in the booklet and a new English subtitle translation to go with the digital restoration. Still, fans of Russian cinema will be well-served by Criterion’s release of Letter Never Sent, if only to see the cinematography of Sergey Urusevsky in brilliant form.

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