American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
“I want to clean my soul now, after this story,” says Pastor Gennadiy Mokhnenko, the subject of "Almost Holy." The remark comes after we learn about a deaf Ukrainian teenager whose adult housemate spent years sexually assaulting her, at one point impregnating her and taking the baby to a destination unknown. The teenager has arrived at Pilgrim Republic rehabilitation center, an organization run by Pastor Gennadiy to help children get off the street and off drugs. In sign language, the distraught young woman repeatedly asks if the pastor can find and return her daughter. He promises to try. He also confronts the housemate, using language that, while appropriate, is surprising to hear from a preacher.
Pastor Gennadiy, or Crocodile Gennadiy as he calls himself, is more than a man of God. He is a prominent figure in the Ukraine, where his tough love activism is equally controversial and revered. His means of assisting young street children hooked on heroin occasionally borders on abduction. “Almost Holy” introduces us to several of these children, including the eight kids Mokhnenko added to his existing family of three. Additionally, we meet Pilgrim workers who were saved by its founder and are now paying it forward by assisting and advising.
“Almost Holy” shows Crocodile Gennadiy at work, taking us into the sewers and the mean streets of Mariupol, Ukraine. Some of the imagery is horrific, but at no time is it exploitative or used as poverty porn as in the similarly themed “Trash” and “Slumdog Millionaire." Aided by an unobtrusive score by Atticus Ross (“The Social Network”), director Steve Hoover maintains a strict, naturalistic hold on the material that never telegraphs how we are supposed to feel, nor does it make its subjects into unrecognizable others. It helps that “Almost Holy” presents this material as a series of stories Crocodile Gennadiy is telling during a speaking engagement at a women’s penitentiary. We become flies on the wall, destined to listen and learn rather than pity and feel superior.
Mokhnenko explains that his “Crocodile” moniker comes not from Paul Hogan, but from a famous Soviet cartoon with a crocodile character that shares both his name and his penchant for helping people. The crocodile’s sidekick is a dog with a coif straight out of a Bronner Brothers hair show. Mokhnenko’s cartoon alter ego shows up occasionally in animated interludes, antagonized by a mean old lady who has definitely read Ayn Rand. These moments are cleverly used, welcome respites from a harsh, cold reality; if only things were as easy for the real Crocodile Gennadiy as they are for his cartoon counterpart.