The modern-day Ukraine depicted by “Almost Holy” is a place of such individual, familial, institutional and moral degradation that it appears on the verge of apocalyptic collapse. Executive produced by Terrence Malick, director Steve Hoover’s documentary situates itself in the Eastern European outpost of Mariupol to detail one priest’s efforts to stave off the figurative arrival of the Four Horsemen — who appear in many guises, including that of Vladimir Putin and his invading Russian forces. Stylistically diverse, this niche-release portrait of noble vigilantism in the face of insurmountable crisis could be too bleak to convert many Americans to its cause.
Burly, buzz-cut Pastor Gennadiy Mokhnenko has spent his career combating his country’s post-Soviet slide into shameful squalor by taking matters into his own hands. Gennadiy leads raids throughout the city of Mariupol to round up drug-addicted children and abused innocents — often by literally forcing them into his van — after which he takes them to his state-funded rehabilitation center, Pilgrim Republic. Then, he returns to the pharmacists selling codeine-laced narcotics, and outright threatens them.
Willfully operating outside the law, which shows little interest in curing the region’s crippling ills, Gennadiy has made himself into a local celebrity who’s a frequent fixture on TV news programs and talk shows. In the process, he’s also become a veritable folk hero — to the point that he equates himself with “Crocodile Gennadiy,” a famous Russian cartoon character who likewise saves children from an evil, war-mongering adult hag.
While television programs debate his go-it-alone actions, “Almost Holy” — its (new) title taken from Gennadiy’s description of himself, after beating a pedophile bloody before bringing him to the police — barely questions the man’s motivations or methods. In panoramas of the smoke-spewing factories that line Mariupol’s coasts, and in images of needle-marked kids being dragged out of sewers and deaf women being pulled from corrugated-iron shacks where they’ve been raped, Hoover’s film positions Gennadiy as less a “Death Wish” fascist than a last-gasp beacon of hope in a world on the brink.
Speaking mostly in halting English, and exuding weary sorrow and disgust over the Ukraine’s plight, as well as joy over his success at rescuing so many — including the numerous kids he and his wife have adopted, alongside their own three children — Gennadiy proves a figure of violent virtuousness whose iron-fist tactics are his only available means of achieving his ends: namely, a country that cherishes its youth, refuses to exploit the powerless, upholds the rule of law, and thus doesn’t need a rehab center like Pilgrim in the first place.
Structured around a sermon given to female prison inmates, “Almost Holy” follows Gennadiy on numerous missions of mercy to extricate strangers from their horrid circumstances, from a young girl who casually recounts finding her father hanging from a TV cord in her gone-to-seed home, to a woman thrown out of her apartment by her husband to sleep naked in a city square for days on end.
Director Hoover segues back and forth between the near-present and recent past (2000-’08) to convey the progress made by Gennadiy, as well as the hopelessness of his situation. The latter comes to the fore when Putin invades the Crimea, and the conflict approaches Mariupol. Gennadiy blames his homeland’s misfortunes on the collapse of the U.S.S.R., and pines for a future tied to the modernized European Union. In a rare jovial interlude, he beams over a hot dog and coffee (“pieces of the West”) procured at a newly built gas station.
With the personal, social and political caught up in a barbed-wire tangle, “Almost Holy” employs sound-and-fury visuals — feverish handheld footage, alongside meticulous compositions and expressionistic slow-motion — to evoke the Ukraine’s devolution into chaos. All the while, it returns to the sight of Gennadiy washing (and shaving) his face, as if he were trying to cleanse himself of the horrors that surround him.
Hoover’s style seems equally fit for a bleak documentary, suspenseful thriller, black comedy, dystopian sci-fi nightmare and grisly horror film. Those mood-swing modes are mirrored by Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross and Bobby Krlic’s eclectic score, which peaks during a shot of Gennadiy watching fireworks to the sound of a clanging industrial dirge — a scene of beautiful, mournful end-of-the-world terror.