Reel Rating: 4 out of 5 reels
As an art form, cinema does not provide a good vehicle for prayer or devotion. However, there are exceptions, the most noteworthy being Mel Gibson’s masterpiece The Passion of the Christ, which was based not so much directly on the gospels but on the Stations of the Cross. Man of God presents another rare example, a beautiful meditation on the life of an Orthodox saint worthy of imitation across the Christian world.
Nektarios Kephalas (Aris Servetalis) was a Greek Orthodox bishop in Alexandria around the turn of the last century. He was known for his piety, humility, generosity, and even miracle working. He was extremely popular among the common man, no matter their faith. A Muslim peasant stops him on the way to Church. “I was healed!” he exclaims. “Allah heard your prayers.” “No,” Nektarios smiles. “God heard your prayers.”
There are even rumors he will be picked as the next Patriarch of the city. These murmurings unfortunately create jealously among his peers, who falsely accuse him of various “indiscretions.” He is unjustly exiled back to Greece, which is only the start of troubles that would make even Job look upon him with pity.
At first, no one will give him even the smallest position despite his episcopal consecration. Nektarios eventually finds work as the principal of a high school. Like the United States at the time, many male Catholic secondary schools doubled as pre-seminaries for teenagers considering a vocation. Much to the anger of the institution’s president, Nectarious’ holy example inspires many students to pursue religious life over a secular career. Once chased out of that institution, he becomes the spiritual mentor for a convent only to find himself in hot water again as the number of novices increases.
Nektarios’ life is a perfect example of what St. Ignatius of Loyola termed “holy indifference.” This is not apathy towards the needs of the world but the willingness to let go of control. When slandered in Egypt, he affirms his innocence but does not resist the transfer. He accepts the hardships as lessons from God and new situations as opportunities to help others. One friend, seeing Nektarios slighted again, comments, “If I were you, I would have lost faith a long time ago.” The holy man shakes his head, “Woe to him whose faith depends on men.” Even when suffering horrible pain from prostate cancer, his prayers are not for his own relief but to make sure his nuns will be protected.
Writer/director Yelena Popovic uses all the tools of cinema to create a brilliant work of mise-en-scène. The cinematography isn’t quite black and white but a muted sepia tone, evoking a world dull and dirtied by sin. Yet Nektarios can find joy and beauty in this world by seeing everything through Heaven’s eyes. He smiles a lot while the richer and more confident around him seem miserable. The pacing of the narrative is slow and deliberate, like the prayers of Nektarios’ rosary that he constantly filters through his fingers.
There are many extreme close-ups of Nektarios while other actors are far in the distant. The whole ambience adds a mystical quality to his story, not in the sense of otherworldly visions but total detachment from the cares of this age.
The story of Nektarios and his followers is one that seems to be fought in every age. He is constantly berated for being “old fashioned” and “unmodern.” He refuses to engage in the geopolitics that mark his religious superiors or the psychological refinement of the civil authorities. When many of the young women of Aegina forsake marriage and comfort to join Nektarios’ convent, it is assumed he must be running a cult and sexually abusing these women, so foreign and unthinkable is voluntary chastity to secular, modern man. This leads to a criminal investigation including humiliations too awful to be described here. When it is all over, government officials are the ones backtracking and Nektarios, of course, forgives them.
When Man of God was initially released, it was intended as a small festival film, but its popularity has led to a larger release starting March 21st. It is an excellent movie for the Great Fast: a quiet, masterful work about a great soul. Although technically not a Catholic saint, there is little doubt he is among the angels.
• Related at CWR: “A woman of faith directs a Man of God” (June 22, 2021) by James Day.
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