Review: Neotpravlennoye Pismo (Letter Never Sent, 1959)

letter never sent

I always make sure my emails get sent, though I suppose that’s not quite the same thing!

Screenplay By: Valeri Osipov
Directed By: Mikhail Kalatozov

There are certain films that are a product of their culture more than anything else. Everything about the film from the characters to the set design to the camerawork embodies the country of origin. A quick reference point if what I’m saying isn’t making much sense would be The Rocketeer. That film is America, through and through. It’s built upon the myths of what makes America great, why America functions, and is a giant slice of Americana pie. Neotpravlennoye Pismo is to the Soviet Union, or Russia for that matter, as The Rocketeer is to America. This is easily the most Russian film I’ve ever seen, and it’s quite a spellbinding watch in the way it tells a compelling story while driving home the ideals of Mother Russia.

The easiest jumping off point are the characters in Neotpravlennoye Pismo. Specifically the characters of Sergei and Andrei. They are the warrior-poet and poet-warrior respectively. Sergei is rough and tumble, he’s all muscle, and he will chop down some brush just as soon as he’ll pop someone in the chops. But, he’s more than that, he’s intelligent, he’s poetic, he has a whimsy about him and he is rife with emotion. Andrei is very intelligent, more in touch with his emotions, and someone who yearns for love and home. Yet, he’s willing to go on the hunt, he can make the tough choices, and he can take a sock in the mug like no other. Sergei and Andrei are complete men, they embody everything that should be found in a Russian male. So does Sabanine, while Tanya is the embodiment of the feminine yet rough and tumble women of the Russian territories.

The camerawork is used to embody Russia, or the Soviet Union more in this case, in the way it gets up and close with its characters while also keeping them at arms length. Neotpravlennoye Pismo is full of close-up shots where the viewer is given an intimate understanding of what the characters are going through. That’s because in the Russian way the plight of the characters is our plight, we are all in this together. At the same time the characters must embark on a journey that we can’t completely understand and thus they are also framed in long distance silhouette shots. This paints the characters as stoic and rock hard, they have a Soviet burden to carry and that is their burden to carry for the viewer.

The wilderness of Siberia is distinctly Russian, that goes without saying. What separates Neotpravlennoye Pismo from any other wilderness film is the way that the wilderness is treated. It’s not a new enemy, it is an enemy that has always existed. You see, everything and anything is against the Russian people. They are isolated, they are on their own, and they are the only ones who can conquer the wilds of the world. Siberia is not something an outside viewer can hope to breach in any sense of the word. However, it is something that the Russians have conquered and have learned to deal with. Nature is against them, the world is against them, the universe as a whole has it out for Russians and the Soviet Union. The starkness of the Siberian wilderness is all the evidence the audience needs of how damned the Russian people are in their never ending battle against the forces of the universe.

All of the distinctly Russian, and Soviet, qualities of Neotpravlennoye Pismo are wrapped around a compelling story. One need not be from Eurasia to get the emotions of these characters. A deep understanding of Soviet culture isn’t required for unrequited and/or lost love to be felt. Mikhail Kalatozov presents a very Russian film, but at the same time he ties Neotpravlennoye Pismo into the greater culture of the world. In essence, Neotpravlennoye Pismo presents universal themes in a very Russian, or to beat a dead horse a Soviet, manner. Gospodin Kalatozov has crafted a distinctly Russian film in Neotpravlennoye Pismo, but it’s a Russian film that should appeal to any lover of great cinema and great storytelling.

Rating:

***1/2

Cheers,
Bill

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