ALMOST HOLY, documentary, rated R, in English and Ukrainian with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 2.5 chiles
Almost Holy is about tough love and tough questions. At the documentary’s center is a Ukrainian pastor named Gennadiy Mokhnenko, a man on a mission. He roams the streets and the crack houses and, literally, the sewers of Mariupol, a city in Ukraine to which the post-Soviet era has brought economic and moral devastation. He scoops up homeless, drug-addicted children and victims of rape and domestic violence, and he brings them, often forcibly, to his rehab center, Pilgrim Republic.
Father Gennadiy is a bluff, square-jawed man with a warm smile and a big heart. He and his wife have three children of their own and an adopted brood of dozens. Speaking to the camera in heavily accented but confident (and in some cases, subtitled) English, he describes his center as “sometimes like prison, sometimes like hospital, sometimes police.” Then, tying on his cleric’s collar, he adds, “Today I must be pastor. So many different jobs!”
He is withering in his contempt for Lenin, the Soviet system, and especially the strong-arm tactics of Vladimir Putin. As a young man, Mokhnenko served in the military, and a turning point in his life came when he and his squad rescued people from a fire. The exhilaration of saving lives struck deep in his soul, and he has dedicated his life to the societal equivalent of pulling at-risk victims from a burning building. The movie covers a decade and a half of his life’s work, from the turn of the millennium to the present.
Mokhnenko fondly relates his sometimes questionable tough-love activism to the antics of a Soviet-era cartoon hero, a crocodile named Gennadiy. In the numerous clips we see from that show, the croc and his little pals are engaged in good works. “All time he save somebody,” Gennadiy says admiringly.
There seems little question that Mokhnenko is a force for good. He has moved into a vacuum of responsibility abdicated by the state and is dragging these kids, sometimes kicking and screaming, into a life in which they have the possibility, at least, of survival. The word we hear used over and over is “normal.” Mokhnenko, whose own parents were, he tells us, “drunk every day,” wants the young people he helps to have a shot at a normal life.
But the movie also raises the question of the complicated ethics of Pilgrim Republic and Mokhnenko’s work. You can transpose what he does into a situation with roving bands of Scientology vigilantes abducting homeless kids from the mean streets and raising them in a cult. There seems to be nothing cultish about Pilgrim Republic, but the question nags. “Who gave me the right?” Mokhnenko muses at one point. He shrugs. “I don’t know,” he says.
If subject matter and good intentions were enough, this would be a first-rate piece of work. Those elements carry it a long way, but ultimately the director, Steve Hoover, falls into a pattern of repetitiveness that robs his picture of momentum and loses its grip on our attention.
— Jonathan Richards
Father knows best: Gennadiy Mokhnenko