Sunday, March 25, 2012

#601: Letter Never Sent

(Mikhail Kalatozov, 1959)

Like its predecessor, The Cranes Are Flying, Mikhail Kalatozov's Letter Never Sent is one of the most visually stunning films in the Criterion Collection. In terms of story, the film is a simple tale of survival and (no surprise from the USSR) sacrifice for the common good. But the film stands out because of its visuals, created by Kalatozov and his cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky, with whom Kalatozov worked on both The Cranes Are Flying and the later masterpiece I Am Cuba, arguably Kalatozov's best film.

Unlike those films, however, the elemental story allows style to completely overtake substance. When the style is this compelling, this isn't necessarily a bad thing; there are moments in this film which are so strikingly beautiful that it makes you forget there isn't much here to make a connection to. Certainly, there's a direct visual line between Letter Never Sent and Tarkovsky's masterpiece debut Ivan's Childhood made a few years later. And much of what Urusevsky was able to accomplish here was expanded upon in I Am Cuba. This makes Letter Never Sent a near classic despite its storytelling shortcomings, and certainly places it alongside the other two Kalatozov/Urusevsky films as must-see examples of the outer boundaries of cinema's potential.

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