The Moscow Film Festival ran from 17 to 26 June. We saw so many films we became almost nocturnal. There were a number of very good films; but one film for us stood out – as it happens, a Russian film: Dreaming of Space. Written by Aleksandr Mindadze and directed by Aleksei Uchitel, it tells the story of two men and two women living in a port town on the Russian/Norwegian border, in the years 1957 to 1961.

The title has many meanings. It refers first of all to the first sputnik (satellite) put into space by the Soviets, and as the press release says, "That was a time of unprecedented optimism and euphoria." In the film, the characters look up at the sky and duly wonder about their place on earth and about their dreams. How achievable are their particular dreams on earth, however, is another matter. The nearest some people get to space travel is when they fall off their bike.

This is only Uchitel's fourth film, and what links them together are the extreme settings. In Dreaming of Space there are so many types of boundaries that people experience: the physical limits of boxing and swimming in cold water (Gherman the loner is in training so that he can swim out of the USSR); the closed border; the forbidden fruits of listening to Western music on a transistor radio; and of course the unrealizable desire to fly in space (except for all but the chosen few). In Giselle's Mania there was the extreme of Spessivtzeva's madness; in His Wife's Diary, the claustrophobia of Bunin's home life; in The Stroll, the characters are living on the edge.

The film is set during the Cold War, and there are many moments which could be thought of as being critical of that period – the beating up of both the two heroes for owning a transistor radio, being followed by secret agents, being surrounded by informers. Yet this is not a political film, if by that we mean a film which puts propaganda or a political viewpoint beyond what the storyline can support. It is a film that explores the complexity of human relationships – men with men, men with women, women with women. The film celebrates both the human capacity for cerebral wonder and the hot sweat of good sex.

Yet, for all its emphasis on the primacy of human relationships, outside of all political factors, this is a film about artifice. The film never steps out of character; it never weakens and allows something to intrude from our own times, but makes its point only within the frame of its own storyline. What we as modern viewers bring to the film, of course, is our own recognition of what has changed since then. Horsie, trying to explain to his girlfriend Lara why he is so in awe of Gherman, beyond the fact that he is a better boxer (and by implication in such a masculine and macho world, the better man), exclaims that "He has the whole world in his room." In 1957 that meant a map of Northern Europe, with the line of the Iron Curtain marked out for emphasis, a transistor radio tuned to Radio Liberty, and some books in English. We know that all of these things were forbidden; that is our first register; but then perhaps we understand what it meant to live in a world without the internet.

The film is so tightly bound together, the plot so well-oiled, that you can almost miss the crucial fact that it gives up its meaning as reluctantly as a tightly screwed-down bolt – there is no escaping from the self.

The very bleakness of the industrial landscape emphasizes the loneliness of each character, and the concomitant need for warmth: not only human contact, but the actual heat from the kitchen in which Horsie, the dreamer, works as a chef, with the two waitress sisters, Lara and Rimma; or the smoke-filled fug of the men-only bar.

The camerawork gives a hard-edged beauty to this border town, situated on the edge of nowhere – a no-man's land – with all of its inhabitants on edge. The moment, for example, when an old trolley bus rattles straight towards us, sandwiched between two factory walls, and at the last moment, just before the camera cuts away, sparks fly from the overhead cables and illuminate a green plant.

It's a good title, for a good film – Dreaming of Space will have you do that very thing.