Almost Holy 
Directed, Written, and Edited by: Steve Hoover
Featuring: Pastor Gennadiy Mokhnenko
Produced by: Danny Yourd
Executive Produced by: Kathy Dziubek, Nicolas Gonda, Michael Killen, Jim Kreitzburg, Terrence Malick
Cinematography by: John Pope
Music by: Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross, Bobby Krlic
Distributed by: The Orchard
In Theaters May 20, 2016
It would be unfair to call it idolatry, but the public mythologizing of Terrence Malick has reached nearly sacrilegious levels of adulation and flagellation (depending on the film – no, the day – no, the minute!) In our most recent episode of the C.M. Film Commentary review series, I spoke about the baffling negative response to Knight of Cups, Malick’s most recent work as writer/director. What some perceived as a simplification of his particular aesthetic preferences is also a distillation and a purification – it demonstrates a filmmaker whose collaborators, including a stable of producers, camerapeople, music supervisors and editors, willfully push their work to fit inside the director’s box. The box is sometimes too tight for people, too enclosed, even for those who believe strongly in the film author; Knight of Cups is Malick’s Only God Forgives to some, and his Goodfellas for others.
Where I stand on the subject of auteur theory is still unsettled, leaving me somewhere in between a fanatic and a cynic when it comes to film directors. From the most spirited American visualists, from Scorsese to Reichardt to the Andersons (PT & W), a new project heralds impending pleasure, and can be a gift more sacred than a birthday and more expectation-laden than an election. Despite this, agnosticism is a fundamental aspect of my viewing habits. In the belief that the filmmakers whose projects will again create “an experience,” I try to watch anything and everything that their creative hands have touched. Even when a director’s projects flag in aesthetic quality, I still attend screenings with fervent hope: this might just feel the same as the good ones. This career completism has gotten me into trouble with The Sitter, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and Shutter Island, to name but a few.
Not so with the new documentary Almost Holy, written, edited, and directed by Steve Hoover under the executive-producer stewardship of the legendary Malick and his producing partner, Nicolas Gonda. A World Premiere of the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, Hoover’s project is a disturbing and profound bit of non-canonical nonfiction that, while hardly resembling the dramatic fictions that Emmanuel Lubezki or Nestor Almenedros have shot, warms the completist in me. It is a nice yin-to-yang counterpart, in quality and tone, to another Malick-produced documentary from this year’s SXSW: Laura Dunn’s wonderful The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry.
Where that film was existential, contemplative and docile in its relationship to the humanitarian at its center, Hoover focuses on the rampaging adrenaline and political action of Gennadiy Mokhnenko, a Ukrainian pastor who kidnaps children in order to save them from poverty, drug addiction, and all manner of street-level evils. Hoover’s last film, Blood Brother, was another sterling docudrama about the intersection of machismo and bravery in the case of Rocky Braat, a disturbed young man healing himself through work with HIV-positive children in India. But next to Mokhnenko, who is known as “Crocodile Gennadiy” for his aggressive strategies towards human rights missions, Braat is Rip Van Winkle.***
Hoover shows the pastor over several tumultuous years in Mariupol, Ukraine, where the situation has evolved from partial independence to encroachment on behalf of the Russian government. As the country slides back into its neighbor’s polity, Mokhnenko observes a sickening increase in youth violence and destitution. A large, charismatic man who would make a great cult leader in another life, Crocodile Gennadiy takes matters literally into his own hands by scooping children off the streets to rehabilitate in one of his multiple childcare centers. Mokhnenko is both outlaw and hero, a vigilante in the truest sense of the word; all he lacks for further comic-book comparisons is extreme wealth. In fact, he sees economic disparity as one of his nation’s greatest evils, which international audiences are sure to respond positively to.
The portrait painted of Ukraine’s current political moment is a grim one, with John Pope’s cinematography the film’s most accomplished technical element. Covered in smog and detritus one minute while the sun sets gracefully a shot or two later, the Ukrainian cities of Almost Holy, especially Mariupol, are cosmopolitan dumps. Always within the horizon are warring colors, beautiful pinks and browns that muddy together and obscure the magic of Pope’s “magic hour” images. Like Pastor Mokhnenko’s behavior, the landscape is a mass of contradictions and inner feuds: poverty and wealth, farmland versus cities, darkness against sunlight. The footage calls to mind Koyaanisqatsi and Taxi Driver immediately; and on reflection, Days of Heaven’s fire-light scenes.
Adding to Pope’s impressive, forbidding work are the score and sound mixes, which are heavy on Moroder-like synthesizer tones and disturbing city noises. Sirens blare, creepy bells ring, camera shutters click, and cars rumble at such low bass levels that they tickle the spine. No wonder that six individuals (Brett Ardiel, Brian Johnson, Ken McGill, Tyler Proctor, Dallas Taylor, and George E. Simpson Jr.) collaborated on the brilliant sound mix and edit. The music is by Bobby Krlic, Leopold Ross, and Atticus Ross, whose The Social Network score similarly darkens every room in which it is played. Ross is a natural fit for Hoover’s films, which insert the viewer into nauseatingly tense situations with no urgency to leave them; my father calls this strategy “holding the viewer hostage,” but sometimes it’s wonderful in its scariness.
Such is the honest case of Almost Holy, which – while it cribs few noticeable audiovisual tools from Malick’s ever-shrinking shed – nonetheless keeps the audience close without their ever feeling nice, warmed, or pleasured by the film. Mokhnenko is foundationally macho, stubborn, and brutal; his methods, like any other fantasy vigilante’s, are barbaric and noble all-in-one. Of his best and worst personal choices, Hoover and Pope miss little, turning the camera into a potential device for justice – against Crocodile Gennadiy, if necessary, or for him. Hence the title, which wears its confusion of purpose on its sleeve: is the Pastor a sacred man, or a god-defying one?
***In that he’s asleep on the job. I recognize here that this comparison could use some editorial work, but I liked the image of Rocky Braat napping instead of tirelessly helping Indian citizens with HIV/AIDS to stave off their deaths. In reality, Blood Brother hardly skims the surface of the incredible, painful, measured charity that Braat has contribute to the world. He has one of the purest karmas in film history.