Review by Justin Goodman
While Steve Hoover continues the visually stark and empathically driven documentary style that defined Blood Brothers, his 2013 Sundance success, Almost Holy doesn’t strictly live up to it’s title. There’s nothing “almost” about Ukrainian Pastor Gennadiy Mokhenko who Hoover unabashedly portrays as an infectious, fatherly, and profoundly earnest man of works. The ex-soviet soldier who revels in “western technology”—what he calls hot dogs—and built up the empire of Pilgrim Republic, a halfway house for drug abusing children vagabonds, seems even cartoonishly godly. It gets even less plausible when he shares that his inspiration was a Soviet animated movie, Crocodile Gennadiy, and his parents rampant, seemingly benign alcoholism. Yet there he is. But, is he? Prefacing the documentary is a quote by the 20th century Russian writer Isaac Babel that reads: “A well thought-out story doesn’t need to resemble real life. Life itself tries with all its might to resemble a well-crafted story.”
After Pastor Mokhenko drags a pedophile from a sewer with two boys and brings him bleeding to the police station, one of the officers questioning him question whether a holy man should be beating up pedophiles. The Pastor clarifies, he’s “holy…almost.” It’s one among many humble moments, including a moment where a boy gets deathly ill from continued drug abuse and the Pastor delivers the tough love statement that “If I were God I wouldn’t let him live.” Knowing he isn’t God, however, he pursues saving him. Unfortunately he can’t. But the premise repeats itself in news clips and moments of silence, which begs the question of his holiness. And while Hoover seems to want to pursue Babel by saying Gennadiy Mokhenko is reality’s pursuit of fictional representations of goodness, either Crocodile or Christ. This questionable sacredness, this “almost,” is actually lost in Hoover’s almost perfect emotional alignment with his subject.
And that makes us learning so little of Mokhenko’s life and the depth and complexity of his public reception less surprising. Although Almost Holy traces the frame of his development from 2000 to 2015, from bachelor radical to respected community leader with 11 adopted children, it tends to pull the reigns when it comes too close. That mention of his parents being alcoholics begins and ends with the Pastor telling how he’d come home with his mother on the floor, unsure if she was alive or merely drunk; Blood Brothers, by contrast, opens with a visceral and emotionally uncertain story: after the family cat jumps into an engine and gets its face cut open, the father tells his son to bury the cat he assumed had bled out, only to be told by his son it was still alive. His response? Kill it with the shovel. This mixture of sacred and profane just doesn’t exist in Almost Holy.
It’s a shame that there’s not more discussion about the righteousness of his vigilantism because, especially for western audiences familiar with Westerns, there’s a lot of space for moral doubts. But while Almost Holy suffers from addiction (Pastor “crocodile,” as he refers to himself as with children, has a personality not too far removed from the “krokodil” he tries to keep out of the hands of those children), it provokes a unique conceit for a non-mockumentary that will last longer in memory than the discussion it fails to present. It seems to want to be fictional. The cinematography is astoundingly symmetrical—a buzzing streetlamp light on the left and the moon on the right; two boats of equal length sailing in opposite directions in the distance—but symmetry is the artifice of art, unnatural even to the human body. There’s no less authentic portrayal of the Maidan Revolution than the Pastor’s friend elegantly framed by a destroyed truck’s passenger window.
Having incorrectly claimed there were artistically-driven fictive elements in Almost Holy—The Wikipedia page I failed to find was clearly not hard to find—the fact remains that the inevitable lacing in of contemporary politics into Ukraine’s existence is treated with an indifference equal to the Pastor’s. The camera focuses on a passage, from that same page I failed to find, that his only aim is “to find fame and the desire for power.” Google translation butchery aside, this is clearly untrue since the Pastor has no ambitions for politics besides remaining outside of them; he and one of the young adults argue about the need to be involved in the revolution with him trying to sway the young adult out of participating. The only consequence of this is the aforementioned passenger window framing. As much as the documentary fails to account for the playground of Western and Former Soviet ideals that play out in Ukraine, it does a disservice to the Pastor who is the fulcrum of the documentary.
Babel’s quote basically gave away the reliability of the story presented. If you’re looking for a complication of a moral issue that has rocked religion since Christ overturned tables—naturally, Pastor Gennadiy Mokhenko references this when talking of drug dealers—then you’ll be disappointed. There’s an almost fictional innocence to it. So you’re welcome to your annoyance on this since, after all, this is the implied topic of Almost Holy. Regardless, it’s Hoover’s grip on the subject and portrayal of documentary as drama (docudrama is Nanook of the North’s classification) that makes it as tear inducing as its subject. For a nation and culture still determining for itself whether it’s Russian or Western, whether it will keep “Lenin inside mind, inside soul” or happily walk away from a rough satellite history as the Pastor tries to, perhaps fiction is the only honest way to reproduce without rewriting a complicated story.
Opening in New York and Los Angeles May 20th, Before Expanding Nationwide.