the sublimation of reality (on Blu-ray and DVD)

Artistic note: Red StarRed StarRed StarRed StarRed Star(5/5)


Four geologists go on an expedition to the heart of the forests of Siberia, in search of a diamond deposit. The small group tirelessly explores lands and rivers. Autumn is coming and food is running out, they have to go home. But at the time of the return, the elements are unleashed and they have to face the worst difficulties.

• Original title: Neotpravlennoe pismo (Неотправленное письмо)
• Media tested: Blu-ray
• Genre: drama, adventure
• Year: 1960
• Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
• Cast: Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy, Tatyana Samoylova, Vasiliy Livanov, Evgeniy Urbanskiy, Galina Kozhakina
• Duration: 1 h 36 min 19
• Video format: 16:9
• Cinema format: 1.37/1 Black and White
• Subtitling: French
• Soundtrack: DTS-HD MA 2.0 monophonic Russian
• Bonuses: The Unfinished Letter, a black diamondanalysis of the film by Eugénie Zvonkine, teacher-researcher in cinema (2022, 25 mn 03) – a booklet with the observation report by Gunārs Piesis, excerpts from the shooting diary of a member of the team ( anonymous) and memories of David Vinitski, the artistic director of the film (60 pages)
• Publisher: Potemkine Films

Art commentary

Made in 1960, between When the storks pass (1957) and Soy Cuba (1964), The unfinished letter confirms the artistic superiority of Mikhail Kalatozov, a Soviet filmmaker “discovered” in the 1950s and then 1990s, who is undoubtedly one of the great masters of the 7th Art, especially when he is associated, as for these three films, with a director of exceptional photography, Sergei Ouroussevski. The duo won a well-deserved Palme d’Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival, which should have been extended to the other two films (alas the film The unfinished letter was withdrawn before its projection) which we can hope, one day, for a 4K release by Mosfilm! In the meantime, the blu-ray version offered by this edition is however technically very recommendable. The unfinished letter is the least known of Mikhail Kalatozov’s films despite equivalent dramatic and formal qualities, perhaps because it was less supported, the Soviet authorities reproaching him for having privileged form (magnificent, it must be said) over substance (glorification of the devotion to the homeland). In the three films mentioned, and particularly in The unfinished letter, Mikhail Kalatozov, who was once a documentary filmmaker and cinematographer, applied his conception of a style – not always to everyone’s taste – capable of arousing emotion, which he achieved jointly with his cinematographer, by blending formally on the work of the artist Alexander Rodchenko, a pioneer of Russian constructivism. The plot of The unfinished lettera patriotic adventure film between thriller and survival, is inspired by a short story by the writer-geologist Valeri Osipov, “The Diamonds of Yakuria” (1958), which tells the perilous mission in Siberia of three geologists, Constantin Sabinine (Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy), Andrey (Vasiliy Livanov) and Tanya (Tatyana Samoylova), with their guide Sergey (Evgeniy Urbanskiy). The production of the film was, in itself, a real adventure whose perils and difficulties can be measured thanks to the documents offered in the booklet given as a supplement. Filmed in natural settings in the Siberian taiga, where the team spent long months of solitude in extreme temperatures of -40°C, the filming required self-sacrifice from the actors, who had to do their own stunts and learn the gestures of the geologists, and an incredible genius for DIY on the part of the technicians. Photographs (see bonus) show how the duo Mikhaïl Kalatozov /Serguei Ouroussevski had to use tricks to make the camera move in the middle of nowhere and invent insane tracking shots in the middle of the flames. The incessant innovations of the framing, without cranes or rails, are perfectly ensured by the use of natural resources (example: tree trunks to improvise a camera nacelle swing): the vertiginous shots in the taiga in flames are a tour de force that forced the team to reconstruct a fake taiga in the taiga (in other words an artificial reality!) in order to be able to follow the actors with a handheld camera between the flaming trunks. The result is stunning since it immerses the viewer in the heart of the action while suggesting a variety of intense emotions: creativity infuses each shot like, for example, these seeming sparkles from diamonds. The story of The unfinished letter follows the transformations of nature according to the seasons: the first summer part is devoted to the search for diamond deposits during which a love triangle develops (the guide is attracted by the young Tanya who is in love with Andrey), then the winter and the drama will monopolize the second part. The unfinished letter is the story of strong oppositions, between man and nature, love and sexual drive, adversity and patriotic flame. The genius of Mikhail Kalatozov is to have known how to overcome the propagandist character of this story (distant echoes of the authorities via the radio soon out of use) by the energy devoted to filming and by his consummate art of allegorical and visual allusion. (analysis of the threat of rape: see bonus) whose lyricism tempers the discouraging nature of the story. Much more than a thriller adventure film, The unfinished letter is a fascinating, quasi-experimental work (expressionist use of fades and superimpositions), designed to trigger emotions in the viewer, as frightening (panic of failure which is boosted by the movement of the camera…) as romantic (Diamantville illusion …), analogous to those experienced by the characters. A sensory achievement not to be missed.

The Unfinished Letter Blu-ray

Technical Comment

4K restoration in 2020 from the interpositive at the Mosfilm Cinema Concern laboratory (producer of the restoration: Karen Shakhnazarov): removal and correction of defects due to the use and storage of the negative (trembling, flickering, stains, scratches, scratches , etc). The artistic choices complicated the restoration: shots with flames, moving camera with abrupt change of background. Use of the Phoenix program whose automatic cleaning mode removed 30 to 50% of the defects on the 135,000 images. Other difficulties with scratches include thick black vertical lines (on the right most of the way through the film) and with fine irregular discolored scratches that cannot be treated other than manually with PFClean and Fix Scratch filter.

Picture : HD copy, impressive definition and remarkable sharpness, extremely fine silver texture (shooting in 35 mm, Master Format 4K), stabilized and perfectly cleaned image, remarkable management of contrasts in sequences with complicated lighting (fire in the taiga, snow), dense blacks, harmonious grayscale, nuanced whites

His : Russian 2.0 monophonic mixing, clear dialogues, no distortion or heavy hiss, very good dynamics on the atmospheres (manual soundings, fire, shouts, etc.)

Our opinion

Picture : Red StarRed StarRed StarRed StarRed Star(5/5)
Sound mixing: blue Starblue Starblue Starblue Stargray star(4/5)
Bonuses: Red StarRed StarRed Starhalf red stargray star(3.5/5)
Packaging: blue Starblue Starblue Stargray stargray star(3/5)

IMDb :

Blu-rays and DVDs available on Amazon

Other articles that may interest you on ON-mag and the rest of the web

We wish to thank the author of this article for this awesome material

the sublimation of reality (on Blu-ray and DVD)