Classic: Mikhail Kalatozov’s ‘Letter Never Sent’

Letter Never Sent (Criterion) continues the home video rediscovery of thetoo-often-overlooked​ Russian auteur Mikhail Kalatozov, director of the Cannes Palme d’Or winner “The Cranes are Flying” (1957) and the almost unclassifiable “I Am Cuba” (1964). This 1959 film, about a geology team searching for diamonds in Siberia, is a curious hybrid: a Soviet propaganda piece of heroic scientists working for the good of the country turned into a riveting survival drama when they are overcome by a raging forest fire. The lush forest landscape becomes a burning alien wasteland and Kalatozov’s camera makes delicate dollies through the burning brush and wispy smoke, creating beauty from the devastation. Kalatozov seems to take the assignment in stride, giving lip service to the propaganda so he can engage with the primal survival drama, which is where the film burns bright and deep. Blu-ray and DVD. No disc supplements but there is a booklet with an essay by film scholar Dina Iordanova.

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I Am Cuba and more on Turner Classic Movies

Politics, propaganda and poetry are whipped into an exotic cinematic cocktail in Mikhail Kalatozov’s delirious tribute to the Cuban revolution, I Am Cuba. The film, a co-production between the USSR’s Mosfilm and Cuba’s national film production company, ICAIC, was embarked upon as a gesture of solidarity in the wake of the Cuban Missile crisis. Castro, a film buff who loved both Hollywood movie and the great Soviet classics of the silent era, saw an opportunity to put Cuba’s story on film. Kalatozov (director of The Cranes Are Flying) saw the film as his opportunity to create his own Battleship Potemkin, but for the Cuban struggle against Batista. What he emerged with is an epic revolutionary art movie of socialist ideals that opens in the decadence of Batista’s Cuba and ends with the intoxication of righteous uprising against the capitalist oppressors.

I’ve had the pleasure of revisiting one of the best DVD releases of 2007 (and one of the greatest film rediscoveries of the 1990s) for Turner Classic Movies: I Am Cuba.

“We saw the film as a kind of poem, as a poetic narrative,” explained cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky in a 1965 interview. Urusevsky, who had previously shot Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying, and Soviet poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko joined director Kalatozov in a tour of Cuba to scout locations, soak up the culture, and get to know the people in order to find their story. Cuban poet Enrique Pineda Barnet was their screenwriter partner and tour guide. He helped sketch out ideas and characters with the three Soviet artists in group meetings in Cuba and then traveled to Moscow to help write the script from the notes and scene sketches. Pre-production reportedly took over a year as Kalatozov worked out every aspect of the film, and the shooting lasted almost two years.

The resulting portrait, ostensibly a collaboration between Soviet and Cuban artists, is undeniably European, the work of Russian filmmakers intoxicated by the Caribbean culture and music and set loose away from the oversight of Soviet studios and politicians. Continue reading “I Am Cuba and more on Turner Classic Movies”