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  • Reviewed from the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival

You can’t simply TikTok or Skype your way to true companionship – or so argues Luis Alejandro Yero’s sometimes moving but often frustrating feature debut, Calls from Moscow. Like the dreary Russian town it depicts, with its post-Soviet apartment blocks whose lights never glimmer, and whose walls contain no signs of robust life, Yero’s film has a barely detectable pulse.

The documentary centres on four young LGBTQ + Cubans living in Putin’s Russia as the Kremlin prepares for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The four don’t know each other, and the movie follows their individual stories in parallel. From working in construction in severe cold to peddling fake miracle cures on the internet, these human islands languish in limbo, doomed to isolation, ennui and nostalgia, except for the frequent calls to and from home.

The film’s connective tissue is the mobile phone. It allows the migrants’ native Spanish to establish an immediate if tenuous community: at the mercy of a poor connection, they call up their loved ones in Cuba, or search for YouTube videos that relay news from home. Yet too much – be it the scramble to pay rent and remit money back to Cuba, or the growing apprehension of the war between Russia and Ukraine – filters in through spoken accounts; too little is observed first-hand to really get a sense of the textures of exile in Russia, or to glean each character’s narrative arc. One could argue that Russia, like all countries, must remain something of a mirage to its immigrants, but increasingly there’s a sense that the characters themselves, thinly sketched as they are, are the mirage.

An early scene of a migrant clad in a crimson robe and filming a TikTok video clip provides a sudden burst of swagger, but the subsequent scenes of making content for TikTok dull this initial freshness, as do the repeated sequences of this same young dandy hooking potential Cuban internet buyers on phony remedies. (The cynicism of this predation is chilling: it’s the survival of the fittest, or the least naïve.) The TikTok inserts seem to suggest that Russia can yet inspire fantasies, but they’re so sparse they can’t prevent the prevailing picture from being unfailingly grim.

Though Yero deliberately emphasises repetitiveness as inseparable from a migrant existence, this doesn’t always make for riveting cinema. Frequent scenes of faces backlit by tiny screens make the film seem not just static but unimaginative. Yero’s conceit of depicting life within the confines of home, with the outside world glimpsed only through windows, results in a haunted but severely constrained portrait.