‘Man of God’ — A Film of Faith and ‘Tranquility of the Soul’ for Our Troubled Time
The movie will be shown on 800 screens throughout the U.S. on March 21 and March 28.
There may be no better time for the release of the new faith-based drama Man of God than in today’s climate. Told in a style echoing the elegiac films of Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The New World), Man of God’s contemplative tone matches the spiritual ascetism of the title character, Nektarios of Aegina.
The film follows Nektarios (Aris Servetalis) as he endures slander from his religious superiors and tribulations from laymen who cannot understand his emphasis on serving the poor and marginalized over advancing his own career in early 20th-century Greece. Through it all, Nektarios refuses to compromise his calling as a man of God.
With its sumptuous cinematography and production design, Man of God immerses audiences into the milieu of the time. Spanning 30 years in Nektarios’ life, from his suspension as bishop of Cairo in 1890 until his death in 1920, the film’s technical quality transcends the usual quality of faith-based fare. This is due in large part to the vision of its director, Yelena Popovic. Man of God, which she also wrote and co-produced, is only her second feature film as director. Born in Serbia, Popovic worked in both New York and Los Angeles in fashion and acting before turning to directing. The desire to tell the story of Nektarios of Aegina, today venerated as a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church, grew out of her own religious conversion — a conversion that was fueled in no small part by the example of Nektarios.
Shot on location in Greece, the film’s dialogue is in English, and the film features an international cast of acclaimed actors, including American Mickey Rourke (Francesco) in the small but crucial role as a paralyzed man. Rourke’s character typifies the type of people who connect with Nektarios — those forgotten and marginalized, like illiterate peasants or young women drawn to the convent built by Nektarios, which still exists today. These relationships with common people yearning to follow Nektarios into a deeper relationship with God confounded those around them: Surely there must be more than meets the eye, they think, resistant to the notion that authentic faith burrows deep in the human heart.
While immersed in the worldview of Eastern Orthodoxy, Man of God is more interested in the universal struggle that Nektarios undergoes, one with which any person can relate. In this way, the film is ecumenical in nature. For anyone trying to pursue holiness, Nektarios’ journey is not only a relatable one, but an inspiring one.
Is the film appropriate for Catholics? Of course, differences exist between Catholics and the separated brethren in the Orthodox Churches, but Man of God quietly shows the commonalities — in ritual, in prayer, in the beauty of icons and sacred art and, simply, in fidelity to the Most Holy Trinity. Nektarios utters the “Jesus Prayer” at various intervals throughout the film: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This simple prayer was first brought to Mount Athos by Gregory of Sinai (1260-1346). The word describing those who practice the Jesus Prayer, the Hesychasts, derives from hesychia, which Pope Benedict XVI defined as “tranquility of the soul.”
Today, with war waged by (and on) historically Christian nations, Man of God emerges as a testament to how life can be transformed by allowing God to steer the course. It also awakens a desire to expand on those common elements between Eastern and Western Christians. It is an effort of importance to the Roman pontiffs, exemplified most recently in the papal voyage to Greece last December. In speaking with the Orthodox primate of Greece, Hieronymos II, Pope Francis referenced St. John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical on Christian unity, Ut Unum Sint, and its desire for reconciliation and forgiveness. Francis employed an exquisite image to help bridge the gap — olive oil — and its evocation of the Holy Spirit’s power to illuminate the faith journey. The Pope also spoke of the roots of olive trees and said the common roots shared by both faiths are apostolic roots. “It is a grace to recognize one another’s good fruits and to join in thanking the Lord for this,” he said.
In one of the most moving scenes in Man of God, Nektarios, ailing with cancer, visits the 17th-century monastery of Chrysoleontissa and prays before the miraculous icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The scene was shot on location, at the actual icon Nektarios himself frequently visited. For Catholic viewers, the scene confirms yet another commonality — mutual devotion to the Theotokos. It was a connection not lost on that most Marian pope, John Paul II. Speaking at a 1997 general audience, he spoke of the Orthodox and Catholic “common belief in Mary’s divine motherhood, her perpetual virginity, her perfect holiness and her maternal intercession with her Son.” That Nektarios was committed to spending precious time before this icon visualizes the Catholic and Orthodox desire to place all struggle before the Mother of God.
Acclaimed Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica voiced a similar sentiment about the film: “Man of God provides us an insight into the inner side of being, suggesting that there is nothing else left for us but to reclaim our lost harmony under the heavens of faith.”
In Man of God, viewers witness the often difficult journey of Nektarios seeking hesychia, that tranquility of soul, despite being misunderstood and rejected. What Nektarios understands better than his persecutors is that the search for inner peace cannot be separated from the will of God. For many of us, we need examples such as Nektarios to continue that journey. Man of God provides us with that uplift.
A winner of numerous faith awards on the film-festival circuit, Man of God will be screened by Fathom Events in 175 cities nationwide on March 21 and March 28.