MOSCOW -- Millions of Soviet citizens are packing into movie theaters these days for a two-hour dose of misery. "We Cannot Live This Way" is a Soviet home movie of despair, a portrait of a ruined, degraded society in which seven decades of totalitarianism have reduced individuals "to the level of wild dogs." Nothing like a bit of light entertainment to take one's mind off things.

With the Communist Party preparing to open what promises to be a rasping national congress next week, filmmaker Stanislav Govorukhin's ham-handed documentary-cathartic has done little to ease the nerves of an already jittery city. Muscovites watched with fear last week as provincial party secretaries from the Russian republic -- stern, thick men with bushy eyebrows -- lit into President Mikhail Gorbachev for "undermining" a system that has served the apparatchiks too well for so long. The congress promises more of the same.

Moscow is a city with a fragile nervous system, prone to dark dreams of apocalypse, and the Russian party's outburst gave the liberal intelligentsia the shakes. Playwright Mikhail Shatrov begs off an interview because he is "too nervous about the congress." Vitaly Goldanski, a leading physicist in the Academy of Sciences, says the atmosphere reminds him of October 1964 when Leonid Brezhnev toppled Nikita Khrushchev from power for -- as the party's formulation went -- "voluntarism and hare-brained scheming."

The new enemy of Moscow intellectuals, eclipsing even conservative Politburo icon Yegor Ligachev, is Russian party leader Ivan Polozkov. Suspicious, defensive, Polozkov claims solidarity with Gorbachev's ambition to create a market economy, and yet he closes down thousands of cooperatives and other free-enterprise ventures in Krasnodar, his home region.

People are sick of all the boltai, the chatter at endless planning and policy conferences, congresses, television round tables. The marathon of talk on nearly every television station is somehow humiliating to a city -- an entire country -- grown profoundly irritated over the lack of soap, meat, toilet paper, razor blades. Govorukhin's movie shows what all Soviets see in daily life -- fights on the vodka line, senseless street crime, aimless cynicism among the young.

In an underpass near Pushkin Square, Moscow is a swarm of raspy voices and tensions, much like the scene in "Doctor Zhivago" in which the hero returns to his ruined city in the midst of revolution. In one corner, a crone in tattered blue wool sells black-market French brassieres; against the wall, a bunch of teenage monarchists sell picture postcards of Czar Nicholas and Alexandra. A crippled sailor holds out his hat for kopecks; a family of Gypsies tugs at pocketbooks and suit pockets; lottery tickets sell out in minutes.

Govorukhin's movie is representative of the suffering and anger. Just as Tengiz Abuladze's "Repentance" was a rallying cry against Stalinism for the intelligentsia a few years ago, "We Cannot Live This Way" is today's proletarian shriek of despair. There is something of the sensationalist in Govorukhin; he has all the finesse of a hand grenade. And yet he speaks to, and for, a hopelessness and fury that you hear every day on the subway, the bus, in the cheap, stand-up restaurants where cabbage and mashed potatoes are the specialty.

"A society like this, where there is no hope, is going to get worse and worse," Govorukhin said recently. "There is no God, no law. No matter whom you ask, unless they are idiots, they will tell you that tomorrow is going to be worse than today. A society that has no hope has to collapse." The Soviet Union, he said, "can expect the Romanian variant."

The film shows footage from the Nuremberg trial of Nazi war criminals and says that Soviet Communist Party leaders deserve the same sort of judgment. Gorbachev saw a private screening of the film, and Govorukhin has heard two different reports on the Soviet leader's reaction. One said he called it "wonderful"; another described him merely as depressed.

A new group called "Friends in Favor of Gorbachev and the Rejuvenation of the World" is trying to keep the Soviet leader both in power and good spirits. The group claims 3 million members, including entire factories and other work collectives that want to show their support for the president.

The Gorbachev fan club sponsored a ballet performance at the Bolshoi Theater a few nights ago. Gorbachev was busy with preparations for the party congress, so two members of the party's ruling Politburo, KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov and Yevgeny Primakov, went instead.

"We were told that Gorbachev would meet with some of us after the congress," said the fan club's president, Ilya Osadchuk. "For myself, I don't fear the congress. If the right wing starts showing no respect for Gorbachev, they should understand there will be civil war, or at least a huge battle. They can't get away with it. These conservatives have to know that the people will not take a road back into the past."