The one sure thing about Criterion releases is that even though you may not have ever heard of a certain title, you're often in for a unique and surprising viewing experience. Such is the case with 'Letter Never Sent.' I didn't know a single thing about the film before watching it, but it ended up becoming my favorite Russian film of all time.
Without taking place in the Motherland, 'Letter Never Sent' paints a perfect picture of the Moscow lifestyle in the 1950s. The entire film is set in the Siberian mountains over the span of several months. We follow four specific scientists in search of diamonds. It turns out that certain sections of Siberia mirror the geographical composition of the diamond-rich soil and excavation sites in Africa and Australia. Because Russia is so damaged financially, the work of these four scientists could potentially save the dying economy and change the lives of every Russian citizen.
The central individual among the four characters is Kostya. He's the leader of the team and the author of the titled "letter never sent." As they search the mountainous terrain, their only contact with Moscow and the outside world is over a two-way radio. The passionate letter that he has been writing to his wife has no way of being mailed to her. Instead, it just grows each day – like a journal.
Kostya's sidekick and muscle is a strapping young man named Sergio. While he's completely committed to his work, his mind is distracted by a girl back in Moscow. The major source of this distraction does not come from being lovesick, but from loving a woman who is in love with another man. This frustration causes a rift between him and the last two members of the expedition.
Andrei and Tanya are two noteworthy geologists. They've worked together for the same company for some time and make the very best work partners. Kostya and Sergio both note that the two are in love, but have never spoken to one another about it. Their love is completely obvious to everyone but Andrei and Tanya. Knowing impossible love, Sergio can't help but be angry at the two for not taking advantage of it while the they mutually feel the same - unlike his own love. Having been married for many years and understanding the patience that comes with relationships, Kostya sits back, watches the signs and waits to see them discover their love on their own. While the basis of the film is not entirely focused on these relationships, they are the thread that hold the film together and the main source of emotion for the calamity that lies ahead.
After searching for the entire summer, our foursome is racing against the clock to find just one vein of diamonds in this perfect soil – but they haven't found a thing. Spirits are broken and hostility runs between them. With temperatures dropping quickly and winter knocking at the door, they finally find what they came for and quickly pass the good news on to Moscow. Their bosses share the news with the nation and hope flourishes. The date and time is immediately organized for a chopper to fly the long distance and retrieve our four relieved explorers – but the happiness and celebrating is short lived.
The morning that the our heroes are to rendezvous with the chopper, they awake to find themselves in the middle of a raging forest fire. As they try to escape it, they realize that it's literally too big to escape. Moscow tells them that the frontline of the fire spans 1,000 kilometers and that the good fortune of their rescue warrants sending choppers and search crews out to find them.
As you watch 'Letter Never Sent,' it's apparent that it was filmed in a time where limitations didn't exist. During the forest fire scenes, you'll see that the fires literally span for miles, as if the filmmakers truly burned down an entire forest for the shoot. It's breathtaking. If you want to feel the sheer panic of being stranded in the middle of a burning forest, pop this disc in.
The shooting style that director Mikhail Kalatozov employed is not unlike that Werner Herzog used in 'Aguirre: The Wrath of God.' This gritty handheld look adds a level of tension to the danger scenes. As they explore the landscapes, the camera is literally inches from the actors' faces. You learn what's beyond each bush just as the characters do. It's a style so old, yet unused today, that it's refreshing to see again.
If you've never seen 'Letter Never Sent,' it is definitely a worthy title. If you're leery of giving it a blind buy, with a high number of Criterion titles available to stream on Hulu Plus, give it a watch and I'm sure you'll want to add it to your personal Criterion collection.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion has given 'Letter Never Sent' the standard royal treatment, a Region A BD-50 in their trademark clear keepcases. The always-included booklet contains an essay titled 'Refining Fire' by Dina Iordanova. Not a thing plays before the main menu.
On the downtime of Sunday afternoons, my wife and I frequently watch episodes of 'Antiques Roadshow' on PBS. When worn aged items are presented, the historians typically say things like, "Wear and tear on objects this old is to be expected." The same goes for this 50 year film, but even with all of its aged flaws comes a mostly sharp 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. Note that 'Letter Never Sent' is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
Although the usual techniques that Criterion applies to clean up scratches and debris are used, the negatives used were so highly damaged that some errors could not be cleaned up. The scratches and specks are almost completely constant, but visible through them is an uncanny sharpness. 'Letter Never Sent' just might feature the strongest amount of details behind the wear and tear. Facial pores and strands of beard hairs are visible one by one. The DNR applied is so light that it doesn't erase these strong features.
Old black & white films set in the outdoors frequently have contrast issues from the extreme natural lighting, but that's not the case here. Even when our foreground cast is set in a shaded forest, you can still clearly see the wooded hills of the background through the treeline.
Noise is absent. Bands, artifacts and aliasing are also absent. Because of the sharpness of the transfer, no edge enhancement was employed.
If the new audio master was taken from an equally damaged print as was the video, then the audio masters at Criterion did a superb job of cleaning up and transferring the it to an uncompressed 1.0 LPCM. It's perfectly cleaned. The only audio option is the original Russian track, so be sure to have your English subtitles turned to "on."
The first shot of the film is from a camera mounted to a helicopter that has just dropped off our team of scientists to the only clearing in the thick Siberian forest – a wide river bank. We watch for at least a solid minute as the chopper gains altitude and leaves our explorers behind. The mix of music and effects during this sequence is awesome – despite being in mono. The film's score is amazing, at times sounding like that of an old Disney animated movie from the same era. The warbly in-movie music blaring from a single-speaker radio carries the same sound of the crappy radio that I had as a kid. Adding to the audio is a great lack of sound. One character risks all for the salvation of the other characters. The silence of this scene makes you hold your breath.
Not a single harsh pop or crackle can be heard throughout the film, although there are a few instances of distortion. During loud noises – gun shots or loud screaming – the audio tends to carry a muffled high end distortion. But aside from that, this is another aged track that been cleaned up with surprising clarity.
Sadly, there isn't a single special feature on this disc. No "50 Years Later" documentary. Nothing.
Although it shouldn't be, it's always surprising to me to see how many excellent movies exist that I've never heard of. I've said it before and I'll say it gain – thank heaven for Criterion cleaning them up and bringing them to light. 'Letter Never Sent' is a fantastic Herzog-ish battle against the elements. The first half establishes the characters and builds up hope, while the second half quickly erodes all of that. It's a fantastic character study whose second and third acts are literally draining. This film still feels like it's ahead of its time, employing styles and techniques that I had noticed in other films until a decade later. Personally, I consider it the finest Russian film that I've seen to date, and Criterion has done a marvelous job of cleaning up this 50-plus year old print. While plenty of flaws still remain, the sharpness of the transfer shines through them. The mono audio is also nearly flawless, allowing the strong and creative mix to make an impression. It's safe to assume that very few of the filmmakers involved are still around today, but it would have been nice to have a special feature dedicated to the historical aspect of the film and the insane wilderness shoot. As it is, there isn't a single special feature included – but that shouldn't stop you from exploring this classic drama on your own.