Russian Movies

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Letter Never Sent (1960)

Russia is difficult to figure for Americans, especially those with a parochial outlook. Even now, despite profound changes in geopolitics, Russia has never fallen in line behind any American-led banner. Marxist or not, it finds its own equilibrium and objectives. Historically, prior to the 1950s, and those notorious witch hunts, Russia provided an alternate and more international form of leadership. Unfortunately, artists who sought through their crafts to help foster a fairer and more harmonious world had an attachment to Russia, since it was the preeminent model of anti-fascism. Letter Never Sent (1960) serves as a document of sorts, showing just how committed the USSR was toward establishing a state that would function for the sake of a common good. That was the idea, put very sketchily.

Although the four characters, all youthful geologists, hunt for diamonds on the Siberian plateau, this film is not another Greed (1924). Their actions are done on behalf of their country. After they locate the diamonds, they notify Moscow and celebrate inside a tent. Then a forest fire causes them to move away and communication with headquarters stops. They are on their own, at wits' end, and despite search parties, remain unseen.

While they are under pressure, they never intone a prayer or beseech the help of God above. Instead, in one scene, reduced in number to two, the survivors recite the Pioneer's Oath, re-enforcing their patriotism and reverence toward Lenin, without, however, turning him into a deity. Cynics might assert that the characters get what they deserve. They found the treasure being sought after and so their superiors will kindly dispatch them. But their comrades are actually desperately seeking their whereabouts. And when Sabinin, ultimately the lone survivor (and author of the unsent letter to his wife), hallucinates, he envisions fellow countrymen and women happily at work on a river's edge building project, not angels with harps and wings.

Filmgoers undaunted by risk might find a pay-off in this film's rental or purchase. It has a unique and refreshing look. Many shots highlight both foreground and background, the action appearing through flames and branches. Characters loom large in the camera's eye, and then, later, are eclipsed by snowfall and an interminable, harsh landscape. Further, there are all those close-ups, expressions, angles, actors in silhouette, and compositions that emphasize how fragile life is, overwhelmed by nature. These formalistic elements rival the best that the avant-garde has to offer. Still, the movie remains realistic enough. Notes supplied by Dina Iordanova, film scholar, in the blu-ray edition, offer helpful insights. Letter Never Sent has also been remastered so that its visual quality is crisp and hypnotic.

Our big brothers in government and religion might say otherwise, but to the American people, Russia is no enemy. It is instead a power to reckon with. This could change, of course, but why tempt fate? Both the United States and Russia fell on the same side of the divide against fascism in World War II. Since then, the competition between them has often caused alarm. A cultural exchange seems more the ticket than an accumulation of accusations that cannot lead to a mutual and thus peaceful resolution. According to several websites, the film was restored by Francis Ford Coppola. This makes more sense than pointing missiles.


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