Mikhail Kalatozov, whose career began in his mid-20s with a number of documentaries, made some of the most interesting films to come out of Soviet Russia. Like most major filmmakers under the communist regimes of the '30s through the '60s, he had a rocky relationship with the authorities who controlled filmmaking, at one point even being barred from the industry for a number of years after his film Nail in the Boot (1931) was banned by the censors.
It seems that it was only after the death of Stalin and the general loosening of restraints in the mid-'50s that Kalatozov was able to experiment and express himself freely in film, and the results were a handful of movies which are so visually distinctive that he found himself condemned for “empty formalism”. His breakthrough came with The Cranes Are Flying (1957), a story of the impact of the Great Patriotic War on one family. This was the only Soviet film to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes, a recognition of the striking visual style Kalatozov had begun to develop with the cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky which they would expand in their subsequent films together, culminating in the idiosyncratic epic I Am Cuba (1964). This style is highly expressive, using aggressive camera movements, dynamic framing, and a surprisingly agile hand-held technique.
In The Cranes Are Flying, their technique powerfully evokes the emotional effects on ordinary Russians of the war against Germany, while in I Am Cuba it creates a monumental ode to the lives of ordinary Cubans and their struggle against oppression, leading to the triumphant revolution of 1959. At the time, that film was condemned for aestheticising the political struggle, but in retrospect, although some see the film as a monument of kitsch, it evokes a deep emotional involvement with the revolution and its causes.
Between these two masterpieces, Kalatozov and Urusevsky made one other film, Letter Never Sent (1959), just released by Criterion in an eye-popping edition (on both Blu-Ray and DVD; this review refers to the DVD edition).
The story of the film is quite simple. (There may be some spoilers ahead). Three geologists and a guide are dropped off in a remote part of Siberia to search for diamonds. They are presented as intrepid pioneers, seeking a way of freeing the Soviet Union from dependence on foreign sources of wealth. The expedition is led by Sabinin (Innokenti Smoktunovsky, whose career spanned 40 years and included Kozintsev's Hamlet ), and the film is partially narrated by him through an on-going diary he writes in the form of a letter to the wife he has left behind, a sacrifice to the needs of the nation. The other two geologists are Tanya (Tatyana Samoilova, the radiant star of The Cranes Are Flying) and her lover Andrei (Vasili Livanov), and their guide is Sergei (Yevgeny Urbansky).