Friday, 23 March 2012
Letter Never Sent
Starring: Tatyana Samojlova, Yevgeni Urbansky, Innokenti Smoktunovsky, Vasili Livanov
By Alan Bacchus
Part of my own personal cinematic bucket list has been achieved with the release and viewing of this film. It comes from Mikhail Kalatozov, a master director virtually unknown by most of the cinematic world. It’s the second film in a remarkable trio of films, sandwiched between The Cranes Are Flying (1957) and I Am Cuba (1964), three pictures marked by a impassioned patriotic zeal, romanticized melodrama in the grandest form and virtostic camerawork unrivalled by few if anyone in cinema.
For decades, even being a Palme D’Or winner for The Cranes Are Flying, Kalatozov was off the cinematic radar, that is, until the rediscover of I Am Cuba by Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola and its restoration by Milestone Films in the 90’s. The discovery of that film was akin to finding a Federico Fellini, or Stanley Kubrick toiling away behind the iron curtain unknown to the West. Years later the Criterion Collection restored and released The Cranes Are Flying in 2001. Looking on Kalatozov’s filmography I knew of the Letter Never Sent, released in between these two pictures, which made its unavailability immensely frustrating. A few years ago a print of Letter played at the Tribeca Film Festival, but it still remained unavailable to the public at large - until now.
The film gloriously lives up to my own personal hype, resulting in an awesome cinematic experience as moving and astounding as say, Lawrence of Arabia. It’s a simple story of survival, four Russian geologists dropped off in remote Siberia digging for diamonds in hopes of discovering a repository of new wealth for the State at large. Kalatozov’s wideangled and mobile camera captures first the joys of discovery of the propective diamond mine and the horrors of nature's cruelty when the group gets lost in a rampaging forest fire.
All the while a love triangle brews within the group between Tanya (Samojlova) and her lover Andrei and the forlorn attraction of poor Sergei who desperately pines after Tanya. The juxtaposition of this interpersonal conflict against the background of the most harrowing of climates on earth is staggering. But at all times Kalatozov’s weighs the scales evenly between the human experience and the spectacle of the adventure.
The key set piece in the film is the awesome forest fire sequence. For about 20mins the foursome is forced to escape the KMs-long rampage of flames, a sequence marked by impossibly realistic set design and intense visual compositions and mise-en-scene.
Gradually the environment wittles the crew down to three, then two and then one. The final act is unbelievably harrowing and dramatic. The final two crew members huddling together to survive, with no food, no water, and blistering cold winds. There’s a death scene shot in this sequence that is so utterly emotional and sad. At this moment, it becomes just one person against nature in a sequence which has the remaining survivor drifting down a river on a log, virtually frozen, waiting for a miracle. The miracle that does arrive which pushes the film into the stratosphere.
Fans of Cranes and Cuba will find Letter Kalatozov’s least stylish in terms of camerawork. Some of the flashier moves, such as the spiral staircase shot in Cranes or the astonishing long takes in Cuba are mostly absent, but replaced by equally startling compositions against the stark Siberian backgrounds and elaborate choreography of his characters through the thick forest wilderness.
Part of Kalatozov’s modus operandi, which is perhaps why he was persona non grata for so many years, is the strong feelings of patriotism and support of the Soviet socialist agenda. There’s no doubt I Am Cuba is was made under strict propaganda rules. In the Letter Never Sent, the motivation of the four characters to succeed is firmly established for the good of the Soviet people as opposed to personal wealth. And never is there any conflict amongst the group for this. Regardless of one’s politics, their selfless devotion to their cause is so passionate we desperately want our heroes to live and survive.
A shame it took this long for most of the world to find the Letter Never Sent. There’s no doubt in my mind it should be considered one of the greatest adventure films ever made, and despite it’s mere 96min running time, an epic as grand conceptually and thematically as there’s ever been in cinema.
Letter Never Sent is available on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection