Though his work attracted some international attention in the late ’50s and early ’60s—particularly The Cranes Are Flying, a wonderfully ecstatic wartime romance that won the Palme D’Or in 1958—Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov won a whole new generation of cinephiles with the 1995 rerelease of I Am Cuba, a Soviet-Cuban propaganda film that held socialist ideals aloft on some of the most astonishing camerawork the medium has ever seen. (The long SteadiCam shot in Boogie Nights that follows a partier off a diving board and into a swimming pool is taken directly from I Am Cuba, but Kalatozov’s take is even more of a marvel.) Between The Cranes Are Flying and I Am Cuba, Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky made the lesser-known Letter Never Sent, a combination survival drama/love triangle that brings their expressive talents to the wilds of Siberia. While Katatozov’s skills as a dramatist are limited—he tends to distill the complexity of human relationships to their emotional essence—his virtuosity is again on full display.
As the film opens, four geologists (Innokenti Smoktunovsky, Tatyana Samojlova, Vasili Livanov, and Yevgeny Urbansky) are transported via helicopter to the Central Siberian Plateau, a remote site that they believe contains diamond deposits. It’s summer and an air of optimism and grand adventure leads the quartet through dig after dig in search of this elusive wellspring of natural riches. During the downtime, Smoktunovsky composes the eponymous letter to his beloved while the other three are enmeshed in love triangle that threatens to fray the group dynamic when circumstances change. After striking gold—which is to say, diamonds—their luck shifts drastically for the worse when they’re engulfed in a forest fire so intense and wide-reaching that rescue teams can’t see them through the smoke. That leaves them to struggle for survival as summer turns to fall turns to an unforgiving Siberian winter.
Kalatozov and Urusevsky believed in the concept of an “emotional camera,” which in visual terms means a lot of close-ups and unbroken, bravura handheld shots that reflect the characters’ turbulent inner lives. When the geologists find the first diamond, for example, Urusevsky’s camera whooshes alongside them as they dash across a field in celebration, which has the effect of rendering the landscape as a blurred, fluttering abstraction. By contrast, the shots of the scorched forest are more studied and mournful, often rendering them in silhouette against a purgatorial backdrop of blackened trees and burning embers. Letter Never Sent, like the other Kalatozov productions that bookended it, isn’t interested in psychological realism so much as the dreams and aspirations of people as they relate to a much larger world. It’s as big a movie as Kalatozov and Urusevsky’s considerable imaginations can will it to be.
Key features: An informative liner notes essay by film scholar Dina Iordanova. Otherwise, zip.