Saturday, August 15, 2015

Letter Never Sent

Neotpravlennoye pismo; adventure / drama, Russia, 1959; D: Mikhail Kalatozov, S: Innokentiy Smotunovskiy, Tatyana Samoylova, Vasiliy Livanov, Evgeniy Urbanskiy

Three men - Andrei, Sergei, Konstantin - and a woman - Tanya - arrive via plane in the forest somewhere in the Siberian Irkutsk Oblast, in order to spend the summer in the wild in search for diamonds. They spend months there, digging and browsing the river banks, but fail to find any precious minerals. Andrei gets into trouble when he accidentally angers Sergei upon discovering that the latter is writing letters to a woman who loves someone else. When they finally find diamonds in autumn, they wake up one morning to find that a forest fire surrounded them. Sergei is killed by a falling tree, while Tanya and Konstantin have to drag the wounded Andrei on a travois to reach a spot where they will be rescued by helicopters. However, realizing he is dragging them behind, Andrei leaves, whereas Tanya dies from cold when the snow covers the v alley. Konstantin is the only one saved.

Mikhail Kalatozov's 13th film, "Letter Never Sent" once again caught the director on right foot and demonstrated a 'tour-de-force' visual style that only enriched the already rich and exciting adventure story. Almost as some sort of a sharper version of his own previous film, the rather corny comedy "True Friends", where three characters embark on a journey on a raft down the river, only to constantly get back into civilization, "Letter" shows the opposite: characters who ends up in the wild and encounter only wilderness there, without any fancy or neat solution. The forest, and nature in general, were always great locations to conjure up a gorgeous mood on film, and the Siberian forests provided for an opulent setting for only four characters in the entire film.

Just like in his best film, "The Cranes are Flying", Kalatozov once again raises the level of the film by at least 20% thanks to the mobile camera: the highlights are the scene where Tanya and Andrei finally find a diamond and run through the forest from joy, which looks as if it came from a dream because it is, it seems, deliberately over-illuminated; the scene of the fire burning in the lower foreground of the screen while the montage of the characters walking through the meadow, browsing for diamonds on the river bank and digging is seen in the background; the shot of Andrei's immobile face placed in a close up in horizontal position while he is being carried and trees pass by him; the majestic hallucination of Vera's ghost that Konstantin has while he is slowly going mad while freezing on a raft that carried him through the river... These are delicious mise-en-scenes, and give the film edge and sharpness. The forest fire, which starts some 40 minutes into the film, is a tad problematic though: it looks great and suspenseful on the screen, but from the ecological perspective, burning acres of trees just for a movie is a disaster. Luckily, the fire does not consume too much of the film's running time, but the finale, where only two protagonists remain in the snow, is a little overstretched and overlong, as well, and could have been shortened by about 10 minutes. Still, "Letter" is overall excellent, one of the best movies from the 50s, and gives a rare treat as being one of only 16 movie or TV appearances featuring the sadly underused Tatyana Samoylova, one of the most magical, tender and charismatic actresses of her generation.


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