It has been almost nine years since my last visit to this fabulous city – an extended absence I plan on rectifying late this summer – and somehow, as they say, things do not seem to have changed. The nostalgia one feels for places loved is always magnified by the cinema, partially because most films do their best to romanticize the scenery, partially because when we glimpse a city at twilight, at dawn, on a rainy fall afternoon, we become flush with emotions and thoughts that simply cannot occur under the dry desert sun. Moscow certainly boasts all the drawbacks that congregate in major metropolises, but its history and culture have few peers in Europe or beyond. And traces of this great and often troubling labyrinth are evident in this film.
Our protagonists are designed to be perfect foils, and their differences are so flagrant as to make us wonder whether two people who live in the same city and speak the same language have ever been so different. The first is Ivan Shlykov (Petr Zaichenko), a strapping proletarian and, in the salad days of New Russia, a taxi driver. He occupies an area in a communal apartment somewhat bigger than the standard allotted ninety-six square feet, has a girlfriend who works at a meat-packing plant, lifts weights with grim obligation, downs his vodka unhesitatingly, and is cruel and unusual to those called in Russian "white hands," that segment of the population which has never had to do manual labor. He is also prone to fits of anger that may have less to do with what he thinks of New Russia and more with what he once thought of Old Russia. As our film opens, his cab is stuffed with three rowdy couples who have as their ringleader the flamboyant and rather annoying saxophonist Aleksei Seliverstov (Petr Mamonov). Seliverstov is malnourished, toothless, feminine, uncontrolled, loquacious and completely insincere; Shlykov is brawny, ferociously macho, laconic, almost of military bearing, and too straight a shooter for his own good. Such people are often labeled gullible; and unlike Shlykov, most of them do not have the muscle to disarrange that presumption. The taxi party, which initially had the makings of an orgy, dissipates as Seliverstov – a hard-core alcoholic even by Russian standards – stops one time too many to satisfy his urges. To pile insult upon injury, it is Shlykov's secret stash that he acquires by flashing a fistful of rubles large enough to quell any thoughts of a setup. He ends up alone, asks the cabbie to take him home then loiter outside for the fare and, to no one's surprise except Shlykov's, never comes back down. And the fact that Shlykov waits until dawn to convince himself of this disastrous truth says much more about his personality than the musician's.
In a way, this is the film's key and climactic scene. Seliverstov has no intention of paying anyone who has not fulfilled the tacit agreement of getting him the physical satisfaction that, as "a genius who talks to God," he feels he wholly deserves. That is to say, a taxi driver taking Seliverstov and a girl home cannot be reasonably compensated unless that girl gives the saxophonist what he has desired all night in the same way that no restaurant could expect payment if vomiting or diarrhea ensued. This twisted logic has always appealed to children, but also to that spoiled demographic that Shlykov has mistrusted his whole life: the intellectual elite. Shlykov is not an educated man, yet he knows enough about history to sense what has occurred in New Russia as well as why. "You write music and books and tell us how to live," he says at one point to Seliverstov, who cannot respond because the statement describes philosophers and artists in all centuries at all times. It is then no wonder that this climactic scene takes place at the beginning of the film because, like socialism, it is bound to fail, a system that was never created for the proletariat but for a less ostentatious type of demagogue. Shlykov finds the musician and confiscates his most prized possession, his saxophone. Modest appraisals from his fellow cabbies do not convince him, however, so when a pawnbroker acquaintance offers him four thousand rubles – almost sixty times the unpaid fare – for the instrument, he decides that Seliverstov's claims to indigence are as nonsensical as the Soviet promise of rule by society's lowest stratum. He pursues Seliverstov to all ends of Moscow, enduring humiliation, fisticuffs, and water damage to three floors of his apartment building, yet Seliverstov's arrears keep mounting. Even when Shlykov can inflict unduly harsh retribution and have his adversary locked up for five years for assault, he ultimately retracts his testimony to make Seliverstov work off his debt the old-fashioned way – on his hands and knees.
What ensues is chaotic, almost unscriptable, but correct, including a ridiculous vignette with a legendary jazz musician, and what I assume is Shlykov's worst-ever birthday celebration, although given the abject lack of fun in his life, one can never be sure. Those reviewers who love topical issues will find enough symbolism about New Russia to caption each scene in smug whispers, and we will leave them to their task, yet one issue needs to be addressed. In almost every blurb on the film, much is made about the fact that Seliverstov is Jewish and Shlykov, in turn, a hidebound anti-Semite. The basis of this pronouncement may be Shlykov's vaguely insane flatmate whom we first see ranting about the "conspiracies of global Zionism" (that should tell you all you need to know), as well as the urgency of maintaining the two men as polar opposites. Shlykov does emit a few slurs during the film, and not only against Jews; but what he does with far greater frequency and passion is trumpet the dignity of the Soviet working class. It is the simple man forced to make love to his girlfriend in the machine room of a meat-packing plant that will resent the easy melodrama and make-up sex in Seliverstov's luxury apartment (apart from vodka bottles, bathtubs are the film's most used prop). In fact, while Seliverstov has some anagrammatic affinity with the traditional name for New Year's Eve, the name Shlykov – a creditor in more ways than one – may ironically remind you of this title character. So what are we to make of the scene in which Seliverstov's enraged landlord shreds and stomps on a poster of the musician whose face Shlykov then faithfully reassembles? Perhaps that nary a lender can exist without a borrower.