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A woman of faith directs a Man of God

Man of God, written and directed by Yelena Popovic, focuses on the unjust persecutions and humiliations that follow Bishop Nektarios, venerated as Saint Nektarios of Aegina in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Director Yelena Popovic (left) talking with actor Alexander Petrov during the filming of "Man of God". (Photo credit: Marilena Anastasiado)

“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This simple prayer is repeated continuously throughout Man of God by the film’s title character, Bishop Nektarios (Aris Servetalis), venerated as Saint Nektarios of Aegina in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Man of God, written and directed by Yelena Popovic, is less a traditional biopic than a concentrated focus on the unjust persecutions and humiliations that follow Nektarios as an ascetic priest entirely devoted to the will of God.

It is a film as spiritual as it is cinematic. It rises above standard faith-based films, with its technical achievements in cinematography, editing, makeup, and production design lifting Man of God closer to the level of arthouse cinema, similar to the works of Terrence Malick.

The ascetism and humility of Nektarios unnerves and embarrasses not only secular authorities, but those in the church hierarchy. His service to the poor as bishop in Egypt was frowned upon as squandering funds; he was thus sent to a backwater commune as a preacher. When he found purpose teaching in Athens, he provoked the ire of the school’s president — because the president saw a peace in Nektarios that was lacking in his own life. When Nektarios reaches a spiritual summit late in life as founder of Holy Trinity Monastery for nuns on the island of Aegina, needless scandal is brought down on Nektarios and the nuns.

Yet, remarkably, Nektarios remains fixed on Christ throughout each period of trials, as if the persecution made his own spiritual life stronger, if not more Christlike. When prostate cancer finally claimed his life (he died on Aegina in 1920), even his final earthly moments were lessons in living like Christ. Here, the beneficiary of Nektarios’s example of suffering is the patient in the bed next to him, a paralyzed man. Memorably played by American actor Mickey Rourke, the scene reflects real-life events: upon Nektarios’s death, the cloak he was wearing ends up on the paralyzed man’s bed. That man eventually walks out of the hospital on his own two feet.

Nektarios was recognized as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1961.

Man of God is only the second film for Yelena Popovic as writer-director. The life and example of Nektarios captivated Popovic when she read a book on Nektarios. It was 2012, and it was the beginning of a winding, unexpected odyssey that resulted in the production of Man of God in Greece in the midst of the COVID-19 global lockdown. The uncertainty of the unprecedented health crisis and persevering with making the film put the filmmakers in the shoes of Nektarios himself.

“The world seems to be going away from faith and spirituality,” Popovic said from Greece in an interview conducted over Zoom. “Hollywood has something to do with that. It could be because Hollywood doesn’t understand that world.”

Popovic knows something about Hollywood. Born and raised in the former Yugoslavia, Popovic ventured to New York as a fashion model, often finding solace at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, before transitioning to Los Angeles as an actress. She developed her craft at the prestigious Playhouse West, infused in the Method approach championed by legendary acting coaches Sanford Meisner, Konstantin Stanislavsky, and Lee Strasberg. Faith and the practice of religion was not encouraged in her childhood, but Popovic knew she had an inherent spirituality that needed to be nurtured. “Faith, ultimately, is a gift,” she said.

A profound religious awakening transformed Yelena Popovic’s life. She made her confession and took communion at a Serbian church in Alhambra, outside Los Angeles. In 2011, after the death of her father back in Belgrade and birth of her second son, Nikolai, Popovic discovered the personhood of St. Nektarios at St. Anthony the Great Orthodox Monastery in Phoenix.

The idea of depicting the holy man’s life on screen gradually dawned on Popovic. She saw in his struggles and virtues a reflection of her own father, a longtime civil engineer in Belgrade. That personal connection with the character as realized in Man of God is revealed by the way Popovic and her cinematographer, Panagiotis Vasilakis, chose to film the scenes. Most of the scenes are told in one shot, or with very little intercutting. The camera stays close, as if it’s part of the mind and world of Nektarios. It seems to immerse viewers in the suffering of Nektarios, to see how he lives his life thoroughly shaped by both the life of Christ, and the will of God.

Man of God transcends the pitfalls of most faith-based films by seeking to tell a universal story of overcoming hostility beyond the borders of a particular faith. It is, in this way, a “catholic,” universal, film. Indeed, many Catholics will largely identify with the depiction of religious ritual and prayer in the film, particularly a powerful scene when an ailing Nektarios prays to the Holy Virgin, “my mother,” as he calls her.

Man of God is aided by a low-key but moving score by Zbigniew Preisner, aided with a vocal contribution by Lisa Gerrard. The sound mix is especially crucial to underscore the solitude of Nektarios’s day-to-day existence. It is an illustration of what Catholic cardinal Robert Sarah has called “the power of silence.”

“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is a simple prayer…but one of great depth. Born out of the mystical tradition of contemplative prayer known as hesychia, it is known as “the Jesus Prayer.” It was first brought to Mount Athos, the monastic realm in Greece, by Gregory of Sinai (1260-1346). For those who practice the Jesus prayer, known as the Hesychasts, control of one’s breathing is paramount.

For the Hesychasts, this was not simply a quick-fix process of verbal repetition that would result in instant transcendence, but an experience that demanded total concentration in body, mind, and soul. “May your remembrance of Jesus become one with your breathing, and you will then know the usefulness of hesychia,’ inner peace,” St. John Climacus said, as quoted by Pope Benedict XVI in a 2009 General Audience.

Calm and collected, slow to anger, fixed on Christ — this was how St. Nektarios, a just man, persevered in an unjust world. Man of God carries that over in a quiet but compelling way through the tools of the cinema, and we are enriched and inspired because of it.

Man of God will have its theatrical release on August 26, 2021 in Greece through Feelgood Entertainment, in Russia through Rocket Releasing, and in the Balkans through MCF Megacom. Theatrical distribution across the US, Latin America, Australia, Europe, and Eastern Europe is in negotiations.

• Official Trailer for Man of God:

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About James Day 12 Articles
James Day is the author of Father Benedict: The Spiritual and Intellectual Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI (Sophia Institute Press, 2016). He is a producer and operations manager for EWTN’s West Coast Studio at the Christ Cathedral campus in Orange County, California.

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