Almost Holy (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4): A gritty, tough shepherd in Ukraine

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Documentary film “Almost Holy”, currently available on Netflix, gives us a darkly complex portrayal of a man of the cloth determined to fight against evil in his own unorthodox way. As the documentary shows more of the gritty, uncomfortable sides of his drastic but somehow effective measures, we observe more of what has motivated him for many years, and we cannot help but be fascinated with this compelling human being compulsively driven by his faith and integrity.

He is Gennadiy Mokhnenko, a radical pastor who has gained a fair share of reputation and controversy in Mariupol, Ukraine since he founded Pilgrim Republic Children Rehabilitation Center in 2000. Around that time when Ukraine was still suffering from the social/economic blow from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the streets of Mariupol were riddled with young addicts, and he decided to do something far more than taking care of addict kids at his rehabilitation center. As shown from his archival video footage clips, he routinely goes around crime-ridden areas for nabbing them, and he also confronts drug dealers and other offenders for further driving drug away from his city. He can be quite intimidating if necessary, and he looks more like a cop at times with his plain clothes and black fingerless gloves.

As Pastor Mokhnenko frankly admits in front of the camera, his rehabilitation center is often like both hospital and prison. While many of those unfortunate underage addicts are helped a lot under his protection, some of them are eager to get out. He can be very tough and strict if anyone steps out of line, and there is a harsh scene where he openly scolds a young addict who has been a bad influence to himself as well as some other kids. The boy may deserve that because he ruined a good chance given to him, but does he really have to be humiliated like that in front of others?

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Of course, Pastor Mokhnenko has drawn lots of controversy and criticism for his crusade against drug in public, and his critics do have good points on the inherent dangers inside his vigilantism. His motive may be sincere, and his actions can be regarded as brave and heroic, but, as many of you know, there is always something troubling about enforcing law and order to others in unauthorized ways, which can possibly cause more chaos.

However, it is undeniable that the system itself has been failing for a long time in the city, and the documentary has a number of devastating human sights to haunt us. Around its beginning, Pastor Mokhnenko is with a badly injured girl whose silent appearance speaks volume, and we see how she gets some necessary help thanks to him. We later meet a physically handicapped woman who has been abused by a despicable guy who does not show any remorse about his heinous deeds, and then there is the heartbreaking case of a little girl who really needs to be separated from her lousy addict parents but does not feel so happy about that. We also notice numerous needle marks from various young addicts, and one of the most harrowing moments in the documentary involves with an unfortunate boy who was already too late despite the pastor’s efforts.

As a guy who unhappily grew up under alcoholic parents, Pastor Mokhnenko really understands and cares about those poor kids under his supervision, and we come to understand that saving and rehabilitating them for new, if not better, life has been something he has lived for. In my opinion, he looks like a sort of addict not so different from Nicholas Cage’s character in “Bringing Out the Dead” (1999), but I admire his care and dedication shown from how he spends time with kids outside. While he and his wife have their own children, he adopted no less than 32 homeless children, and his wife had no problem with that because she cares about his mission as much as him.

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Meanwhile, things get worse outside, and Pastor Mokhnenko becomes more aware of his limits than before. The political turmoil in his country eventually culminates to the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014, and its brief resulting optimistic mood is quickly shattered by the following civil war, which happens to put Mariupol right in the center of the conflict. As the city becomes more dangerous than ever, the pastor has no choice but to close the rehabilitation center and move kids away from the city for safety, and his frustration is evident as he glumly recollects that depressing time later.

Deftly shuffling between archival footage and interview clips, the director Steve Hoover creates a moody, unnerving atmosphere fitting well to Pastor Mokhnenko’s intense presence and his gloomy environment. The ambient electronic score by Bobby Krlic, Atticus Ross, and Leopold Ross generates uneasy melancholy along with the occasional shots of the gray industrial landscapes of Mariupol, and we come to feel more of despair and hopelessness around those shabby corners of the city. The documentary is sometimes a bit humorous with the clips from a classic Soviet animated film from which the pastor’s nickname came, and Pastor Mokhnenko also shows his jollier side at times – particularly when he drops by a local rest-stop.

Maintaining its calm, clinical attitude, “Almost Holy” mostly lets its human subject present himself to us, and the result is fascinating and thought-provoking to say the least. Regardless of what you think of him, he is indeed someone interesting enough to watch, and I must tell you that he particularly reminds me of what one character said in Agatha Christie’s “At Bertram’s Hotel” (1965): “You can’t tame them, you can’t bring them into the community and make them live in law and order. They go their own way. If they’re saints they go and tend lepers or something, or get themselves martyred in jungles. If they’re bad lots they commit the atrocities that you don’t like hearing about: And sometimes – they’re just wild!”

As far as we can see from the documentary, we can say that he is on the good side at least, right?

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