Arts & Books

Film review: Ukrainian father figure poses a moral dilemma

Consigned to the scrapbook: Ukrainian child drug addicts helped by a pastor

Almost Holy (★★★★, cert 15, 96 mins) is a documentary about a very unorthodox Ukrainian pastor. Gennadiy Mokhnenko has run Pilgrim, a residential home for children in Mariupol, since 1998. Many of the kids in his care are drug addicts and most of them have been forcibly removed from the streets or squalid homes. To the youngsters, Pastor Gennadiy is both a caring father figure and a terrifying boot camp sergeant. He’s also a charismatic media personality and an unapologetic vigilante.

The moral conundrum at the film’s heart, about Gennadiy’s determination to take the law into his own hands, is discomfiting enough, but director Steve Hoover ratchets up the tension with the addition of a discordant score and by contrasting grainy camcorder footage of blank-faced, damaged children at Pilgrim and artfully composed cinematic images, such as Gennadiy diving into the sea.

Occasionally, some of the scenes, particularly in the pastor’s office, feel a little too staged for comfort, but this doesn’t do enough to deaden the film’s impact. The question of whether the methods of this “almost holy” man can be justified is a troubling one, and it’s left spinning in the wind as the film reaches its climax just as the 2014 invasion of Mariupol by Russian forces begins.

Ricky Gervais as David Brent in Life on the Road
Ricky Gervais as David Brent in Life on the Road

From documentary to mockumentary, Life on the Road (★★, cert 15, 96 mins), sees Ricky Gervais revive David Brent, the anti-hero of The Office. It was a prospect that filled me with both excitement and fear. Disappointingly, the latter instinct proved to be the right one. A promising opening 10 minutes, in which we find Brent working for a company that flogs sanitary products, quickly gives way to an ill-conceived narrative that sends him out on a rock and roll tour of Berkshire’s worst venues.

The comedy relies on a relentless stream of knowingly un-PC banter, mainly about black people and fat women. Initial laughs at these familiar Brentisms quickly dissipate as it becomes clear how repetitive and one-note the script is. The Office featured characters and scenes that didn’t always rely on the main man for a punchline and, crucially, the presence of figures like Gareth, Tim and Dawn also gave the show some genuine heart. Unfortunately none of them pop up here and all we are left with is the David Brent Show, and it’s not pretty.

The tour plot sends him and his band down a narrative cul-de-sac and the final act clumsily attempts to make us sympathise with him, as he stumbles upon a little self-awareness. It’s a lame retread of the journey we’ve already seen the character make in the sitcom, except with far less clarity and emotional power. Brent travels the length and breadth of Berkshire here, but Gervais would have been better off leaving him in Slough.

This article first appeared in the August 19 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here