MOSCOW NEVER SLEEPS
Director: Johnny O’Reilly
Written by: Johnny O’Reilly
Cast: Alexey Serebryakov, Evgenia Brik, Yuri Stoyanov, Mikhail Efremov, Lubov Aksenova, Oleg Dolin
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/16/17
Opens: June 9, 2017 at New York’s Village East Theater
In Mel Stuart’s 1969 movie “If it’s Tuesday, This Must be Belgium,” a diverse group of people on a bus tour covering nine European countries in eighteen days have various motives for seeking some distance from home. The tour operator wants to get together with his stable of girlfriends every port. Parents want to get their daughter away from a horndog boyfriend back home. A World War II vet wants to experience once again the best time he ever had, and so on. A subtext in the comedy which you could glean from the title is that you simply cannot know much about any country when you’re hopping, skipping and jumping all over Western Europe.
That subtext is challenged by writer-director Johnny O’Reilly with his film “Moscow Never Sleeps,” all action more or less obeying the classic, Aristotelian unities by occurring within a single day in about the same place and without a major subplot. “Moscow Never Sleeps” has so much depth, so much pathos and tenderness mixed with outright joy, that even we in the United States come away from this gorgeous film with an understanding of one of the world’s great capitals that exceeds what we might learn even as a tourist. (The four weeks I spent in Moscow in 1975 when the city was almost as drab as Beijing at the time taught me nothing about the lives of ordinary people from various classes of society. Listening to the droning of professors from Moscow State University was an unfortunate requirement that tagged along with my brief fellowship.)
O’Reilly’s film bursts with enthusiasm for the Moscow he loves and which he considers a more dynamic place than New York. (One character even says “New York is overrated,” the one statement in the entire 100 minutes that got my dander up). The Irish director, who speaks fluent Russian from his major at Dublin’s Trinity College, has actually chosen to live there, not to escape arrest from the place of his birth but because he cherishes its flow of life. He tackles the lives of five principal characters who intersect, Robert-Altman style, making the story can sometimes confusing to the audience. Some patience is needed in any tale like this to sort out the relationships of people in a diversity of occupations, from young gang-bangers to elite businessmen.
The opening scene is a vivid one. Valery (Yuriy Stoyanov), an elderly man who had been a famous comedian, lies unconscious on a hospital gurney. Waking up, he wonders whether he is in heaven or hell. “You’re in a hospital in Moscow,” replies the nurse, to which Valery replies, “Hell.” O’Reilly’s script will subvert that view, as the characters and their families and folks they meet during the 24-hour period show what they’re made of. Despite the general grousing and we sympathize with the characters, even with the young toughs who spot Valery drinking alone in a cafeteria, photograph him with a camera they had just stolen, and force him to join them, showing them off to others in their circle.
Though there is little direct mention of government corruption which is endemic in Russian society at least since the fall of Communism, there is no way that O’Reilly could have avoided a criticism of Putin-ism. Anton (Mikhail Pavlik), a Trump-style developer with a contract to construct a building complex, is being harassed by officials who are out to cheat him and by partners who have given in to the threats without getting Anton’s permission. Anton knows that by going to New York, the government cannot reach him, and he wants his trophy girlfriend Katya (Eugenia Khirivskaya) to travel with him. Through the developer’s contacts, Katya gets a gig to sing at a concert during the celebration of Moscow City Day, and the fireworks that are to climax the city’s founding are somewhat less of a spectacle than the sight of Anton’s use of physical force against Katya’s young, former b.f. Ilya (Oleg Dolin), who stalks her and has the cojones to challenge Anton directly on the street. (Think of Melanija Knavs confronted by a former lover from her old home town of Novo Mesto in Slovenia, demanding that she abandon Donald Trump and regain real love with her landsman!)
Much of the action is taken up by conversations such as the decision by one family to ship ol’ granny off to a nursing home, and the heroism of the woman’s grandson who retrieves her in one of the film’s notable moments of tenderness. For the kind of action that might appeal to our millennials who spend their Saturday nights at the disco, O’Reilly gives us a pair of step-sisters who get dragged from the dance hall back to a horrendous flat. When the young men attempt to rape them, they get their comeuppance from the girls: a part-time hooker and her virginal stepsister.
Credit Dermot Diskin and Nico Leunen’s sharp editing to minimize confusion in the Altman-style interweaving of characters, though best of all is Fedor Lyass’s lensing with shots of Moscow that could make you think that Edward Snowden chose to hang out in Moscow not so much to escape from the clutches of American justice but because he fell in love with every aspect of the city—including Sheremetyevo Airport.
Unrated. 100 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers? Agree? Disagree? Why?
Story – A-
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – A-