Film Review: Moscow Never Sleeps Imbues Modern Russia with a Touch of Humanity

You’d be forgiven if your only exposure to Russia these days is a headline here or an exposé there about election tampering, inappropriate political relationships, or fake ads and news stories planted on social media. This is America, after all, and Mother Russia is no relation of ours.

That perspective, of course, does a major disservice to the country’s people and culture, both largely – if entirely – innocent of any meddling or malfeasance, and it ultimately may limit one’s exposure to both. And that is the bigger problem: when we forget the humanity of a person, a society, a country, it’s all too easy to oversimplify each and turn them into objects of disdain or, at least, foreign curiosity.

Image courtesy Siskel Film Center

Moscow Never Sleeps offers a glimpse into everyday Russia that is exceptional both for its approachable mundanity and layered personal intimacies and, perhaps more importantly, it’s “they’re just like us” glimpse into the daily drama of five very different but very relatable Muscovites. It all unfolds over the course of a single day, as the country’s capital city celebrates Moscow City Day; festivities, fireworks and good spirits abound, and each of our five new friends will experience a day to remember.

There’s the beautiful young ingenue whose rich, powerful businessman boyfriend finds himself embroiled in a government business deal gone bad while she’s torn between his connections and status and her humble but irresistible ex-boyfriend who’s still in love with her. While he’s trying to win her back, he’s late to get to the hospital to see his dying father, who’s a former TV actor coming to terms with a life full of love but burdened by secrets. When he makes a break from the hospital against doctor’s orders, he’s recognized on the street by a couple hoodlums who strong-arm him into photos they can show off to the girls at the club that night. There, they meet two step-sisters as different as can be, and as the bold one flirts her way into a sketchy situation with the guys, the meek one finds her voice and helps get them both out of trouble. And that’s just a few of the main stories we peek into over the course of the film.

A multi-narrative storyline is never easy to do well, and when it goes wrong it can go horribly wrong. It’s like watching four (or more) movies go off the rails instead of just one. Mercifully, Moscow Never Sleeps writer/director Johnny O’Reilly (an Irish ex-pat in Moscow for a time) manages to string together his characters and their stories in such a way that their connections reveal themselves in due time, all the pieces fitting together as if they were die-cast to precise measurements.

This type of attention to detail, the ability to maintain such a through-line in what might otherwise be a cumbersome film, makes it essentially effortless to watch (and enjoy). Since the stories are so well tended, it’s possible to instead be engrossed in the film’s best moments, of which there are many. When the hoodlums threaten the TV actor with violence if he doesn’t join them, watching him rally despite his failing health offers a tense, powerful depth to his story. The ingenue returns to her high-rise condo to find her businessman boyfriend is on the lam, but her ex is there, too, and their connection, as they fall into each other’s arms (and her bed) is undeniable. Again and again over the course of a single day, each of our main characters is tested, and each responds in ways that are both entirely authentic and understandable.

As day turns to night and the festival kicks into full swing, a sense of an ending begins to creep into the various storylines and it’s here that the film really shines. While the day may have been about broken hearts and sibling rivalries and marital spats, Moscow Never Sleep‘s third act almost imperceptibly slides into a thoughtful, touching exploration of life, death, love and loss. Each of our stories must end somewhere, after all, and O’Reilly never short-changes a single one of them.

Released in Russia back in 2015, the film is just now making its way to American cinemas (it opens in Chicago at Siskel Film Center on Friday, showtimes here), and though cliché, it’s a case of better late than never. If Russian cinema isn’t something you find yourself enjoying very often – and why would it be? – do yourself a favor and expand your horizons this week.

Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone
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