LETTER NEVER SENT (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1959)

Films that announce themselves as great rarely, if ever, turn out to be great. Co-adapted by Valery Osipov from his book, Neotpravlennoye pismo is a case in point. Miraculously photographed in luminous black and white by Sergei Urusevsky, this gorgeous film screams “masterpiece” at nearly every twist and turn of its limber handheld camera through woods in the fierce Siberian taiga. The fluidity of elements creates fabulous images of cold, wind, snow and, later, river, fire and smoke—all in gaseous motion. A projection of spirit and spiritual energy, however, the film, which Mikhail Kalatozov directed more or less by letting Urusevsky have his way, is notably lacking in flesh and blood. It’s a great spectacle, not a great movie.
     A team of geologists and their guide have been dropped off by plane in this wilderness—three men and a woman—to search for diamonds for the economic glory of the Soviet state. They are fueled by visions of the Diamond City they hope will one day be the culmination of their endeavors. The expertise of these scientists, then, has been subjugated to their patriotic duty. Ironically, they will lose radio contact with Moscow, lose their supplies and find themselves struggling for survival. Only one may make it back alive. Regardless, a map of discovered diamond deposits will make it back to the Kremlin. A misleading prologue of screen text obscures the film’s sharp criticism by lauding cosmonauts and such as Soviet heroes. Kalatozov’s film exemplifies the relaxation of ideological stringency for a spell following Stalin’s death during the Khrushchev years.
     Only Sabinin, who leads the expedition, is a recognizably human character; Innokenti Smoktunovsky (who will play Hamlet in Kozintsev’s great film) is magnificent in this role. The other three members of the cast range from negligible to fatuous in sketchy, stereotypical roles. Romantic complications, here, are preposterous and melodramatic.
     The title refers to the letter to his wife that Sabinin began writing onboard the plane out to the taiga. He keeps it, though, rather than sending it back with the pilot, expanding it into a record of the expedition. It is perhaps the case that two dovetailing documents—this letter and the map—will be all that is left of this “glorious” Soviet adventure.
     Here is a case of a narrative film where the narrative and its characters are lost amidst the most awesome cinematography imaginable.

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