Steve Hoover’s Almost Holy affords one an unusually intimate glance at the collapsed infrastructure of the former Soviet Union. Predominantly set in Mariupol, Ukraine, the documentary follows Gennadiy Mokhnenko, a preacher determined to clean up streets littered with homeless children who live in the sewers and under abandoned trucks off of which they steal from equally disenfranchised drunks. Mokhnenko isn’t a traditional preacher, given to speaking of the Lord’s mercy, but someone cut from the cloth of a lurid action film. Thick and tough-looking, with an intimidating barrel torso, Mokhnenko bulldozes his way into Ukrainian ghettos, pulling children out of wastelands and placing them in the Republic of Pilgrim, a series of rehab centers that he’s established in an uneasy alliance with Mariupol’s government.
Mokhnenko suggests a real-life Daredevil or Judge Dredd, as he’s a social worker, a police officer, a den mother, and, if necessary, a barroom brawler rolled into one. The catch is that he has no official authority: Mokhnenko works for himself as a vigilante. When frequently called to defend his actions in speeches or on talk shows, he convincingly suggests that the people will need to rise up when their government has abandoned them. Social services appear to be a bad joke in Ukraine. Children are lost and addicted to codeine-laced drugs, and Mokhnenko is essentially granted authority to take action by his own willingness to get down and dirty in the muck of social strife.
Mokhnenko is a fascinating larger-than-life subject who’s more difficult to pin down than one would initially anticipate. The preacher’s given to airing uncomfortably intolerant platitudes, telling the children that they might wind up dead or “losers” should they fail to get with his program. Underneath Mokhnenko’s quasi-fascist certainty with himself, though, is a well of empathetic feeling and tenderness.
In a robustly moving scene, a 15-year-old girl tells Mokhnenko that her mother asked her when she and her brother would ever die, the implication being that her mother wanted the children’s deaths. Hoover holds on a long shot of the girl’s face as she attempts to suppress her heartbreak, while Mokhnenko, in his blunt, gruff way, gives himself over to her. He doesn’t say much of any importance to the girl. (What does one say in the face of such desolation?) His knowledge that platitudes are meaningless, that action and especially presence are more important, gives him stature. Mokhnenko isn’t in this line of work merely for the ass-kicking, as it’s clear he has an emotional stake in the children he adopts, both literally and figuratively, as his own.
Hoover is clearly in Mokhnenko’s camp. Almost Holy doesn’t wrestle much with the ironies and ambiguities of the man’s actions. A scene in which the preacher looks himself up on Wikipedia, discovering that people see him as power-crazy, isn’t allowed to significantly inform the film’s structure or theme. What Hoover does provide, however, is some of the most viscerally specific and terrifying footage of homeless drug addicts that this reviewer, a former employee of a social services agency, has ever seen in a film. The access that Hoover got to these people is remarkable—and exists, perhaps, as another testament to the chaos gripping the former Soviet Union.
There are intimate and uncomfortable close ups of children with boils on their skin that have resulted from infections from using dirty needles, and of children scrambling over adults, grateful for any attention they receive. At one point, a delinquent parent, who had his child taken from him by Mokhnenko, reveals to the preacher a track mark-lined leg that’s so bruised and infected it resembles a diseased tree. In a prolonged raid sequence, Mokhnenko storms a debauched abandoned house with hoarder clutter, moldy food, portions of walls torn out, and congealing fat on the floors, pulling a deaf woman away from the derelict more or less holding her hostage. In this context, this footage isn’t exploitive (though it walks a fine line), as Hoover’s establishing the stakes that have inspired Mokhnenko to go rogue.
Hoover blends fictional narrative and documentary tropes. Atticus Ross provides a score that recalls his work for David Fincher, informing certain sequences with a heightened dread that contrasts with the rawness of the skid-row visuals. Rough footage caught on the fly, dating back to the early 2000s, is interwoven with pristine modern images that emphasize the wideness of Mariupol’s horizons, as this bull in a China shop attempts to take stock of his city. Instances of slow motion, particularly as Mokhnenko swims in the chilly ocean, prolong our awareness of his own feelings of constriction. Occasionally, this stylization proves unnecessary, as the street-level footage, of a man attempting to rebuild his country from the ground up, speaks louder than traditional expressionism.