Al­most Holy

AL­MOST HOLY, doc­u­men­tary, rated R, in English and Ukrainian with sub­ti­tles, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 2.5 chiles

Pasatiempo - - CONTENT -

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

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