Monday, May 16, 2016

Almost Holy: Pastor Crocodile Gennadiy Looks After his Flock

Pastor Gennadiy Mokhnenko’s name is surely on the list of Ukrainian leaders to be rounded-up for a Moscow show trial if the city of Mariupol ever decisively falls (which it very nearly did). This man of the cloth is also on the enemies list of a drug dealer known on the streets as Abrahina. In both cases, Pastor Mokhnenko has called out those who threaten his flock and his country. That country is Ukraine. Nobody is more aware of the nation’s systemic social pathologies or more determined to fix them than the good cleric profiled in Steve Hoover’s documentary, Almost Holy (a.k.a. Crocodile Gennadiy, trailer here), co-executive produced by Terrence Malick, which opens this Friday in New York.

Pastor Mokhnenko is a lot like Father Flanagan, but with more swagger (his nickname “Crocodile Gennadiy” comes from a beloved Russian cartoon about a do-gooding croc). His version of Boys’ Town is Pilgrim Republic, a rehab center and homeless shelter for Mariupol’s shockingly young street junkies. Pastor Mokhnenko will give them a hot meal, a warm bed, and possibly even hope, whether they want them or not. In point of fact, Pastor Mokhnenko remains somewhat controversial for “whisking” young addicts off the streets, even if they do not want saving.

As you might expect, Pastor Mokhnenko does not have much time for critics who think a pre-teen runaway is better off living rough and doing who knows what for an opiate fix. Yes, he is pretty certain of the righteousness of Pilgrim Republic’s cause. It comes from all the drug-ravaged kids he has buried. Yet, even with all the suffering he has witnessed, Crocodile Gennadiy remains a Ukrainian patriot.

The city of Mariupol should ring with significance for viewers because it was the scene of a pitched battle between Ukrainian defense forces and Russian-backed separatists. Although Hoover does not try to compete with docs like Winter on Fire and Generation Maidan, he does not ignore the extreme geopolitical developments in the third act. As a result, the film ends with more uncertainty than closure.

Likewise, Hoover tries to keep an open mind regarding Pastor Mokhnenko’s hard charging methods and his lack of bashfulness with the local media, avoiding hagiographic puffery. Still, it is hard not to admire the Pastor’s guts. Altogether, it is a scrupulously balanced portrait of a highly influential activist and vivid snapshot of Ukraine’s marginalized and exploited youth. Recommended for everyone concerned about street-level realities in the Putin-besieged free and independent nation, Almost Holy opens this Friday (5/20) in New York, at the Cinema Village.