“I’m going to be blunt” is a recurring phrase in Almost Holy, succinctly summing up the character at the film’s heart – Gennadiy Mokhnenko, or Pastor “Crocodile Gennadiy” – a man hewn from granite and fuelled by the burning desire to make his Ukrainian home a better place.
Mokhnenko tempers this innate directness with a profound sympathy for the scores of deeply damaged children he encounters on the streets of Mariupol. The melding of the blunt and sublime is present throughout, in both the central protagonist and the cinematography. Despite the nightmarish subject matter, the film is beautiful. Elements of its executive producer, Terrence Malick, are present both in the frequently stunning visuals and the sometimes meandering storytelling. Scenes range from the hazy and dreamlike to the visceral and grotesque. There is a forensic candidness to certain sequences such as Mokhnenko publicly shaming a teenager with AIDS for dealing the devastating drug Krokodil in his parish. Close-ups of skin peeling from the legs of adolescents like mould-ridden wallpaper in a condemned apartment block are followed by sun-dappled montages of the idyllic rural life that Mokhnenko leads with his scores of biological and adopted children.
Generational backlash is at the heart of Almost Holy and placed in national context as the story progresses. The pastor’s own battle to house every orphan in Mariupol is jeopardised, along with everything in the country, by the escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine, as the latter looks to join the EU. As foreign soldiers are stationed ever more offensively on Ukrainian borders, a palpable sense of the fear and uncertainty spreads throughout the country, caused by a conflict even a man like Mokhnenko is unable to face off.
Mokhnenko is undeniably a charismatic figure, but we are rarely given a sense of his darker, more intriguing side promised by the film’s title. While his actions could be more aptly described as “always” holy as opposed to “almost,” morality is never painted entirely in black and white. Despite a lack of internal conflict in the pastor himself, his struggle, and the film as a whole, makes for captivating viewing.
Almost Holy is released in selected cinemas on 19th August 2016.
Watch the trailer for Almost Holy here: