Letter Never Sent (1959)
Spine No. 601
the directing: Mikhail Kalatozov
the writing: Grigori Koltunov, Valeri Osipov, Viktor Rozov
the acting: Innokenti Smoktunovsky, Tatyana Samoilova, Vasili Livanov
For some reason, after much debate of what film to watch, finally sitting down and plopping the DVD in, I was not expecting much from Letter Never Sent. It is safe to say my knowledge of Soviet films is quite minimal. Actually, unless Rocky IV counts I got nothing. Yet, after watching the film my inspirations have suddenly been flooded with searing urges to experience more of the vibrance that is Russian cinema.
Kalatozov’s Letter Never Sent follows a four-person expedition team on the hunt for diamonds in Siberia. The team is made up of a couple, Tanya (Samoilova) and Andrei (Livanov), a jealous man, Sergei (Urbansky), and our narrator, Sabinine (Smoktunovsky). One might expect the conflict to come with trying to find the diamonds, but here we see the heaviness of the drama after the diamonds are found. The group must battle mother nature and her elements to stay alive. Only then will they be written into Russia’s history books.
This film seems to play with social norms that now we recognize without hindrance. From the beginning of Letter Never Sent I smugly believed I had the whole thing figured out. I figured they would find the diamonds – the one thing I got right – and the conflict would come from the people. Meaning, it made sense if the people eventually fought for the riches or even killed. It didn’t register in my mind that greed or selfishness would not overtake the situation. Furthermore, each person’s goal strayed from self entitlement, leaving the simple end result of enriching their country. Is this a critique of Soviet society in the late fifties? I am not really all that well informed on the subject, however I can say with much vigor, how easily and thoroughly this film critiques modern society of numerous nations.
The Bonus Features:
the essay: “Refining Fire” by Dina Iordanova
For those like me with a pathetic notion of Russian cinema, Iordanova’s essay might point you in the right direction. She gives countless references to Soviet films of the time, providing her readers with a laundry list of potential. This was the greatest point I took away from her essay – even if it was unintentional on her part. Coming in a close second was her words on cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky. She outlined one of my favorite aspects of the film, giving background on the man and his revolutionary photography.
Other than these points – and maybe a few more – I was disappointed overall with the essay. I expected more background on the Soviet film industry, including social and political barriers this film may have faced. Procedural information on simply what it took to make a picture in the Soviet Union would have been welcomed. Unfortunately, Iordanova’s essay will be forever slated in my mind as a missed opportunity.
Worth the Criterion: No, unless you find it cheap on sale. The film is great, don’t get me wrong, but that is all you get. Unfortunately it is going to be hard to find this film outside the Criterion world, so if you get the chance to borrow it or rent it definitely give Letter Never Sent a chance.
Worth the Link: Yes, so you know what to look out for.