Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
The film opens with four people being deposited by helicopter in a remote region of Siberia. They are members of a geological expedition surveying the area and prospecting for industrial diamonds during the warm months. Two of the group are seasoned explorers while the other two, a young man and woman involved in a relationship, are on their first expedition. The leader is Sabinine, a man who seems driven to finish the project he is in charge of. ("You're a man possessed," one of the others says to him early in the film, to which he answers, "How else can a man get anything done in this short life?") As the group goes about its work, Sabinine is absorbed with memories of his wife and works intermittently on a letter to her full of highly charged emotions, the letter of the title. Just when it looks as if the expedition has been successfully completed, the explorers wake one morning to find themselves in the middle of a huge forest fire. Unable to communicate with their base and with winter quickly approaching, they have no choice but to try to make their way back through the fire-ravaged landscape on their own, an odyssey that fills the rest of the film.
With only four characters (five if you count the occasional flash memory of Sabinine's wife) and the most basic of plots, the emphasis in this variant of the archetypal struggle of humans against nature is not on narrative events or even the examination of people under stress. The defining quality of the film—and the thing that consistently holds your attention—is its amazing visual sense. For Kalatozov the most important thing here is to convey a sustained mood of disorientation and danger in a physical world that overnight has been turned upside down, and the way he establishes this mood is less through character and action than through the film's startling imagery. (The cinematographer is Sergei Urusevsky, who also shot The Cranes Are Flying and several other films by Kalatozov. They are often cited as one of the great director-cinematographer teams of cinema.) What Kalatazov shows us here is a vision of hell as potent and disturbing as anything to be found in film or fiction.
To these Kalatazov and Urusevsky add a surprising amount of footage shot with a handheld camera. This happens at moments of heightened emotion or danger such as when the group are racing through the woods trying to escape the fire, the handheld camera registering all the confusion, panic, and terror of the situation. This handheld footage never seems gratuitous or exhibitionistic, as it can when misused or overused, but always controlled and purposeful. In more subdued passages where Kalatozov focuses on his characters, he often shoots them in tight close-up so that we see the play of emotions on their faces. These close-ups, like the handheld camerawork, are always used in a controlled way, and the performances are always scaled to correspond to the intimacy of such close observation.
Still, the main thing you're likely to take away from Letter Never Sent is not so much your emotional response to the film as your aesthetic response to its images. It's appropriate that a film which focuses on the ageless struggle between humans and nature ends as it began—with the camera, mounted in a helicopter, moving away from the people in the shot until all we see are tiny figures dwarfed by a vast landscape of fearful beauty.
To see more of Letter Never Sent, check out the amazing slideshow of images from the film at the Criterion website.