A computer error linked to the launch of a space shuttle has brought on nuclear winter, ending the world. In a shelter underneath a science museum and library survivors are either dying or desperately holding onto hope. The protagonist (played superbly by a barely recognizable Rolan Bykov) is a Nobel Laureate, in physics I believe, whose wife is dying. They and colleagues all go nameless (unless the English subtitles simply failed to identify characters) with a single exception: Eric, the couple’s son, to whom the father writes letter after letter, thereby keeping alive the hope that Eric, from whom he has heard nothing, is somewhere still alive. But without photographs to corroborate the existence of anyone outside the range of sight—these were destroyed in the nuclear holocaust—who knows if there ever was an Eric? Memory, after all, like anything human, is fallible. In time, the possibility strikes us that Eric is God.
Written by Boris Strugatsky, Vyacheslav Rybakov and Tarkovsky disciple Konstantin Lopushansky, who directed, Pisma myortvogo cheloveka marshals pieces of the master’s visual signature: wet; remnants of past artifacts; slow pans. Lopushansky shifts between a rich form of sepia that includes glassiness, golden patches and occasional reddish tinge—the opening shot is of a hanging light bulb—and thin, gray and white. The film’s principal shortcoming is its want of tautness and cohesiveness. But for the most part this is a terrific piece of science fiction that culminates in an eerily beautiful finish that rescues an overwhelming sense of hope from the apocalyptic rubble. In a long-shot that reverses the direction of the chain of dead dancers passing into nothingness on the horizon at the end of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1956), a group of sick children, perhaps accompanied by the spirit of the scientist, light out for the territories, perhaps passing into some sort of future. Thus they visually refute a remark made by one of the shelter’s inhabitants before he commits suicide in front of his grown son: “Mankind was a tragic species, doomed perhaps from the very beginning.”
Let us hope that that is not the case.
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