Criterion // 1959 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Rogers (Retired) // April 16th, 2012
You've never seen anything like it.
A starkly beautiful yet terrifying film that will force you to take note of the power within a motion picture camera.
Four geologists travel deep within the Siberian wilderness in search of diamonds. As the months grow longer and their hope for success dwindles, the wilderness turns sinister as it exposes the inner turmoil in each team member. What they find in the wild and in themselves is more terrifying than anything they could have imagined.
If you're a depressed pessimist like I am, there's something beautifully relatable to the complex sense of Russian national identity present in much of the country's literature and cinema. It's an identity defined by shades of grey and fueled by cruel and unfortunate things. When you watch Russian cinema, you don't expect to come away feeling optimistic or entertained. Instead, you grit your teeth and hope your fool's view of the world doesn't come crashing down around you.
At its heart, Letter Never Sent is a simple story of a group of people who traverse a harsh landscape in search of history's most violent gems. But as the film continues and our heroes become unhinged by their failure and growing resentments, the narrative takes on philosophical, political, and psycho-sexual tones. This is not your usual Man vs. Nature story, especially when you start to examine the themes as both a product of and statement against late 1950's Soviet Russia.
Though daring and shocking in its cynicism, the masterful cinematography defined by experimental framing, stark lighting, and optical effects truly gives Letter Never Sent its bite. Sergei Urusevsky's (I Am Cuba) camera work is fluid and intimate, helping to highlight the complexity of these characters. His visuals become more erratic and daring, as our characters become unhinged, taking the camera into places and situations where other men would shy away.
Letter Never Sent is an artistic match made in heaven, as Kalatozov and Urusevsky are not afraid to destroy the stale confines of classical cinema and return the art form to the theories of preeminent Russian directors like Sergei Eisenstein who believed the true beauty of cinema was found in the visceral clashing of images. While Eisenstein achieved this by editing together spatially conflicting shots, Letter Never Sent adopts an avant-garde style of hand-held shot composition and long takes that creates a sense of conflict and immediacy. The methods are different, but the aim is the same. Urusevsky's harsh lighting creates deep shadows that accentuate the sinewy confines of the human form pitted against the primal urgency of nature; exemplifying the idea of visuals heightening the narrative.
The most impressive aspect of Criterion's 1080p, MPEG-4 encoded Blu-ray is an incredibly solid transfer, especially considering the age of the film. The 1.33:1 frame is consumed by deep inky shadows that cut across landscapes and blindingly white sunlight that pierce through dense tree canopies in sublime fashion. There's also a surprising level of detail, evidenced by the detail on the actors' faces. While there is visible damage to the print, the Blu-ray gives us that filmic experience at home. The 1.0 LPCM audio track is incredibly strong. While mono tracks lack obvious depth, there's a great level of fidelity here. From the dialogue of the actors to the ambient noise of the Siberian wilderness, the track handles all beautifully. It never allows one aspect of the aural landscape to dominate the others, which is about as much as you can ask.
Sadly, Criterion has seen fit to go through all the trouble of meticulously restoring this masterpiece only to leave the Blu-ray void of any special features. It does come with the requisite booklet complete with a detailed essay by Dina Iordanova entitled "Refining Fire." It's just a shame we don't get some sort of documentary about the collaboration between Kalatozov and Urusevsky, or even a simple trailer.
Letter Never Sent may come across as boring and indulgent -- and it's hard to say those aren't fair criticisms -- but it's impossible to watch the film and not experience a sort of staggering awe at the array of beautiful yet terrifying images and the daring with which the narrative comes to a close.
Letter Never Sent is one of the greatest achievements in cinematography in all of film history. The use of the camera is so shocking and so genius it helped change the perception of the camera from an unobtrusive cataloger of events to an agent of conflict. The partnership between Kalatozov and Urusevsky is right up there with Toland and Welles.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (Russian)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated