Love, Nature, Fire and Diamonds

Man’s most natural enemy is nature. The world natural even hints at it.

In Mikhail Kalatozov’s Letter Never Sent nature is exactly what our main characters find themselves pitted against.

Most American western films, whether they came before or after Kalatozov’s 1960 film, have seen cowboys tough things out against the world they inhabit. They lack water, shade and whatever else they need to survive.  It’s always an uphill battle. The struggle against nature is a landmark of cinema in general.

In Letter Never Sent four Russian geologists are sent out into the Siberian wilderness to continue a search for diamonds that group leader Sabinine has been after for years. He’s accompanied this time by fellow rugged explorer Sergei and two young geologist and lovebirds Andrei and Tanya.

There’s a lot brewing between the four characters in Letter Never Sent. Sabinine is found often writing letters to his wife Vera by the fire. These fireside letters become more and more important throughout the film. The images and flashbacks to times better spent with Vera are an integral part of understanding Sabinine’s dedication to his work and his craft. He loves Vera, but he loves the search for diamonds just about as much as he does his wife. It’s an addiction and won’t quit until he finds them.

Even more so interesting is the dynamic between Sergei and the young lovers Andrei and Tanya. Sergei desperately seeks a woman’s touch. He’s in love with a woman who is in love. That woman, of course, is Tanya. It creates a tense and interesting confrontation between the three people that isn’t welcomed in such perilous and hazardous conditions that are found within Kalatozov’s nature.

But even with all these really interesting human relationships found on Kalatozov’s film, the most interesting and outstanding thing about Letter Never Sent is the cinematography. This film features imagery better than most Academy Award winning and nominated modern films has. Every moment captured is something to behold. Whether it’s an off angled close-up of a characters meaningful expression or a distanced and breathtaking eye on the group traveling through the wilderness, Letter Never Sent left me with a jaw dropped at how interesting it was able to make everything.

I bought this film on a whim after seeing just the opening clip of the four geologists waving goodbye to the helicopter that dropped them off. It was a beautiful, soaring shot inspired hope and adventure. Of course, I knew a little bit more about the film from reading a description. The payoff and main struggle (or villain) of the film is the forest fire that greets them after they actually find the diamonds. This is Kalatozov’s finest moment of the film.

Fire scorches around the travelers. They can’t escape. Every moment is pivotal. The stakes are really being raised against these adventurers who have seemingly stolen from nature. I considered it to be Mother Nature paying them back for taking away the diamonds that were ingrained in her soil. I am not sure if this was filmed on a set or what. Either way, the forest fire looked natural and to be taking place on real Russian soil. Fire was once something us viewers of this film related to Sabinine’s letters to Vera. Now fire meant death.

Like I said before, the cinematography reigns supreme throughout the entire film. It is what makes Criterion’s BEAUTIFUL and PRISTINE Blu-ray transfer of this film worth the money despite there being no extras on the disc. It’s an amazing looking film and really an impressive presentation. But the great camerawork really becomes the forefront of the film during the film’s later stages as the group tries to outfight and outwit nature. It’s a delirious and dangerous adventure.

There is so much to love about Kalatozov’s masterpiece Letter Never Sent. The four characters are easy to get to know and become involved with and the presentation is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. It’s ferocious and intense and brings a whole lot of thought, meaning and consideration to the viewer. There’s nothing weak about Letter Never Sent.

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