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Film / Letter Never Sent

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Smokey the Bear says: Only YOU can prevent forest fires.
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Letter Never Sent (Неотправленное письмо) is a 1959 film from the Soviet Union, directed by Mikhail Kalatozov. Four geologists are sent on an expedition deep into the heart of the Siberian wild forest, where they are looking for diamonds. Their leader is Sabinin, who is still scribbling a letter to his wife that he failed to send before they left (hence the title). Tanya and Andrei are a young couple in love. Sergei is older, and has unrequited feelings for Tanya.

The four scientists traipse around the forest searching for the diamonds that they believe should be there somewhere, due to the geologic similarity between the plains of central Siberia and the South African diamond fields. They are at the point of giving up and calling for the helicopter to come get them when Tanya actually digs out some diamonds. They call home with the news and celebrate joyfully.

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Then the forest catches fire.


Tropes:

  • Bookends: The opening shot is a swooping crane shot from the POV of the helicopter that drops off the explorers. The closing shot is another swooping crane shot up into the heavens, as Sabinin and his rescuers fade away far below.
  • Dies Wide Open: Poor Tanya, dying in Sabinin's arms of hypothermia.
  • Don't Go Into the Woods: They might catch fire.
  • Dwindling Party: Three of the four scientists die in the forest before Sabinin is finally rescued. Sergei is crushed by a following tree, Andrei sacrifices himself to save the others, and Tanya freezes to death.
  • Everyone Can See It: Sabinin notes that Tanya and Andrei try to hide their relationship, but not very well.
  • Flyaway Shot: Used to bookend the movie.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: Part of what makes their problem so bad is that their radio is damaged in the fire. It can receive but it can't transmit, leaving the group listening to their contact back in Moscow but unable to call for help. The endless banal platitudes of the guy back in Moscow, yammering on at length about what a victory they've won for socialism, while the protagonists are in a desperate fight for their lives, seems like a veiled criticism of Soviet propaganda.
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  • Halfway Plot Switch: The first part of the movie is about the search for the diamonds, with Sergei's lust for Tanya and jealousy of Andrei seeming to be the source of conflict and tension. Then the forest catches fire and all of that is forgotten about, as the movie becomes a struggle to escape the burning forest and survive.
  • Happy Rain: During the forest fire, when it finally starts pouring down, the three survivors are overjoyed.
  • Hope Spot: The group hears a helicopter roaring overhead and rejoices... until the sound fades.
  • I Will Only Slow You Down: Andrei is injured, leaving Sabinin and Tanya to drag him across the difficult Siberian terrain. He tells them to leave him and they refuse, so he crawls away during the night and is never seen again. He leaves behind a note saying that it's better for one person to die than three.
  • Love Triangle: Tanya and Andrei, with Sergei also desiring Tanya.
  • Minimalist Cast: Four people have almost all the lines. Sabinin's wife Vera appears in a single dream sequence. The sixth and last speaking part is the voice on the radio.
  • Missing Mission Control: The expedition goes out of control when the radio communication breaks down.
  • Near-Rape Experience: Sergei seems to snap for a moment, and is about to rape Tanya. After she talks to him, he comes to his senses and leaves.
  • Scenery Porn: Some unbelievably gorgeous shots of the Siberian countryside, especially after the snow comes. For that matter, the film includes some amazing shots of the forest fire that must have been incredibly difficult to capture without CGI.
  • Sexy Soaked Shirt: Happens to Tanya when she's dancing with Andrei in the rain. This does not escape the notice of Sergei.
  • Shell-Shock Silence: The soundtrack goes mute as everyone looks in shock at the tree that crushed Sergei.
  • Snow Means Death: Not only are snow and cold pretty bad by themselves, Tanya observes that they'll be screwed if the river freezes over and prevents them from rafting to a town.
  • Twisted Echo Cut: A non-verbal example. Tanya and Sergei are digging in the trench when he seems to lose his senses, and approaches her menacingly as if to rape her. A clearly frightened Tanya says: "Sergei, you're tired," he snaps out of it and leaves the trench. The next shot shows Tanya sobbing in the trench, seemingly frightened by her experience — but in fact she is sobbing from joy and overwhelming emotion, as she has just found the diamonds.

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