One of the films that has received much acclaim recently has been The Revenant, which is about a trapper who is near-fatally injured, left for dead and literally crawls to survive in the harsh Canadian wilderness. Much as been made of how the filmmakers and cast got through the rough conditions and shot in natural light, but for me for all of its technical virtuosity there was some element of heart missing to it, meaning to be about something but about too many things (revenge, love, indigenous people, regret, being one with nature, etc) and/or there was so many virtuoso camera movements that it called attention to itself. I bring this up because decades ago in the Soviet Union, director Mikhail Kalatozov and Sergey Urusevskiy (cinematographer) crafted their own story of people in the middle of the unforgiving/indifferent wilderness, also with many, many moments (70% of the film, give or take a few percents) where the filmmakers went whole-hog for long takes without cuts in said tumultuous conditions. Yet this worked for me much more, despite a lack of bison and fish eaten live on screen and so on.
I don't want to spend the whole review comparing to Inarritu's film, but what I can say is that when you watch Kalatozov's Letter Never Sent, the focus is a little more narrow, so it doesn't go all over the place (it shouldn't have to really). It follows four Russians, three men and one woman, on an expedition in the Taiga (also see Herzog's Happy People for the documentary on this region, but I digress). They're searching for diamonds or precious stones of some sort, and spend weeks (maybe it's months) digging in the ground. They find what they're looking for - it's a very jubilant moment, the kind where Kalatozov and his DP follow Tanya and Sergei as they run through the woods with total excitement (and the camera follows so quickly as to seem like a new type of breathless cinematic expression). And then a gigantic fire breaks out one day when they awake and they have to all fend for their lives and find a way out.
As one small point against the movie, the acting is not exactly nuanced (there's no Tom Hardy here, to put it another way), though this is not to say that the performers are at all bad or sub-par. Maybe a few moments are played very big, or expressions of happiness or joy get turned on so fast that the director can barely keep up (or maybe he encouraged it, I don't know). But because it's these four characters only - plus one radio voice from the outside world, not a character but rather a spectral presence - and as their numbers dwindle over the course of the story it becomes even more intense with those alive, we have a point of focus, especially with the early scenes. So as much as I might try to nitpick the acting here and there, the actors do fully commit to *being* Tavya and Sergei.
One could criticize it for being so indulgent with its movements, but for me that's what made it stand out as such a gorgeous piece of work. It's poetic in how it charts movement on screen, how figures trace along the edge of a landscape, often in darkness or silhouette, against a backdrop of fire and smoke, or the rays of the harsh Siberian sun and clouds. Not all shots necessarily last 4/5 minutes either, and some are wonderful just for staying on faces; when Tanya and Sergei are having one of their few rests, and they recall a pioneer song from their youth, it's real heartache and nostalgia fused together, and the close-ups cut from one face to the other like it's as natural as anything you've ever seen. But when tension has to rise again, the filmmakers know just how to make things reveal themselves in a way that doesn't feel forced, somehow.
If you've seen the director's previous films like I Am Cuba or The Cranes are Flying, you may know what you're in for. If you just happen to pick it up off the shelf knowing nothing about it, Letter Never Sent still triumphs as a work of art - a story that digs deep into the human condition, not simply that to try and survive a situation (though of course there is that, constantly), but also to keep love and hope alive, and what happens when love is found and lost while another's lost story is going on (Tanya and Sergei have this, and it's heartbreaking to watch unfold). Throughout their struggles in the majority of the film, the characters have a constant hope that they'll find somebody, unless, as one character does do, it's time to give up, and I couldn't help but feel like there was a complex set of emotions going on. It's not simply about charting a story of human beings pushed to their absolute limits of durability, or watching them suffer for art (like another film I could think of, it was hard not to at times during this).
The direction is sophisticated, challenging, daring, and altogether different from what we get in most movies from any era, and yet through all of its visual flourishes - and there are many shots that, you know, you could hang up on a wall to show as still-image photography of the highest artistic sensibility - it's not really too pretentious. Another thing as well is that it's one of the only Russian films from the era, at least on first thought, that have no real politics to it. Letter Never Sent is brutal but also beautiful cinema from master craftsmen and (semi) talented Russians.