Johnny O’Reilly’s ‘Moscow Never Sleeps’

Moscow under a microscope

Given the constant presence of Russia in the news cycle, the local opening of Johnny O’Reilly’s remarkable new film, Moscow Never Sleeps, could not be more fortuitous. Acknowledging that many Americans probably have little contact with Russian people and even less exposure to Russian culture, this snapshot of a group of diverse Russians should prove revelatory.

Evgenia Brik's Katya and Oleg Dolin's Ilya enjoy a stolen moment. (Photo courtesy of Landmark Theatres.)

Moscow Never Sleeps follows about a dozen different Muscovites over the course of a single day. As we discover, they are all connected, some by family, others by random circumstance. A businessman’s girlfriend is stalked by an obsessed ex-boyfriend, whose father is a dying film star, who gets kidnapped by a group of predatory thugs, who then have an encounter with a pair of stepsisters. It keeps going and sounds downright labyrinthine, but director O’Reilly juggles the links deftly, never allowing us to get lost among the complicated relationships.

"Slice of life"

Given its slice-of-life nature, Moscow does not concern itself overmuch with specific plot points. Rather, its focus is the overarching theme of bonds that tie people together, sometimes unexpectedly and not always happily.

One situation centers around Katya, the girlfriend mentioned above. She lives with the wealthy businessman, Anton, while being chased by her former lover, Ilya. Katya admits she’s staying with Anton primarily for his money, but she still has feelings for Ilya. She isn’t aware of how strong those feelings are until she is forced to move to New York with Anton.

Then there is Stepan, who must place his frail, elderly grandmother into an old-age home to appease his girlfriend. But once the deed is done, Stepan finds himself torn between the bonds of family and the demands of that unfeeling girlfriend.

Beautiful city, dirty secrets

O’Reilly’s characters are all deeply flawed. Some simply try to get by under difficult circumstances, while others are victims of their own bad judgment or emotional immaturity. They are all driven by deep inner needs, some desperately so. The cast is uniformly exquisite in its portrayal of these desperate people. Standouts are Evgenia Brik’s Katya, who wants to have her emotional cake (Ilya’s devotion) and eat it too (Anton’s money); Oleg Dolin’s Ilya, whose desperate need for Katya leds him to extreme behavior; and Sergei Belov’s Stepan, who learns almost too late what he needs the most.

Thanks to Fedor Lyass’s superb photography, this is a gorgeous film. Moscow’s urban landscape is captured beautifully, with all its schizophrenic dichotomy, from the shabby tenements of the old Soviet era to the high gloss of new Russian wealth.

But that’s a wealth whose economy is fueled primarily by corruption, and it’s corruption that permeates all levels of Russian society. It influences how Russians think and feel and deal with one another: with a lot of harshness and cruelty, even from those whose hearts are basically good. But on those rare occasions when human kindness prevails, one can only rejoice at the thought that even in a harsh place like Russia, love and hope are not irrevocably lost. 

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