The Woman Behind ‘Man of God’

Director Yelena Popovic discusses why this film had to be made.

L to R: Yelena Popovic brings the story of an Orthodox saint, Nektarios, played by Aris Servetalis, to the big screen.
L to R: Yelena Popovic brings the story of an Orthodox saint, Nektarios, played by Aris Servetalis, to the big screen. (photo: Courtesy of Yelena Popovic and Fathom Events)

HOLLYWOOD — Yelena Popovic is a Serbian-American actress, writer, director and producer.

She wrote and directed the newly released film Man of God starring Aris Servetalis and Mickey Rourke. The film depicts the life of Nektarios, who died in 1920 and was recognized as a saint in the Orthodox Church in 1961.

Previously, Popovic directed the 2013 NYIIFVF Audience Award Winner, L.A. Superheroes. She also produced Monday Nights at Seven (2016), starring Edward James Olmos, through her company Simeon Entertainment, which has several other projects in development, including Greta Garbo and Moses the Black

Born and raised in the former Yugoslavia, Popovic came to New York as a fashion model; soon, she was in Hollywood. She trained as an actress at the prestigious Playhouse West, home to the method acting of Stanislavsky and Strasberg. It was while working in Hollywood that Popovic returned to the practice of her Orthodox faith at a Serbian church in Alhambra, outside Los Angeles. 

In 2011, after the death of her father and the birth of her second son, Nikolai, Popovic came upon and was captivated by the life of St. Nektarios, the subject of her latest film. 

Popovic spoke to the Register from Greece via email March 23. 


Why did you make this film? 

The short and simple answer would be that I read a book about St. Nektarios in the summer of 2012, and, to quote Bob Dylan: “Every one of them words rang true and glowed like a burning coal, pouring off of every page as if it was written in my soul.”


What do you hope to achieve with it? 

Faith was always an integral part of my life, before and after I started to go to church. Faith kept me going, gave me strength, kept me alive. I experienced the presence of God in my life, most clearly during times of pain and despair. When it seemed that there was no way out, when everything looked dark and when too much pain would rip through my heart, precisely then I would experience the presence of grace. Such feeling of love, peace and warmth cannot be put into words — it can only be experienced. Because of my intimate and personal understanding of the life of St. Nektarios, I wanted to bring his story to people’s hearts in order to help those that suffer, those that are in doubt, those that feel lost, betrayed and abandoned, those who question, “What is the point of all of this”? 


What does this film have to say to today’s audiences?

In every age, people embark on the journey that is called life. On that journey, we encounter struggle. If we want to be honest and reflect upon ourselves, we can easily perceive that another kind of a struggle is taking place within ourselves. What kind of life we are going to have, or even better, whether we are going to feel joy in our heart and feel alive, will depend on the very struggle that takes place within ourselves. That is the battleground for freedom without which there is no peace and happiness. 

St. Nektarios fought for true freedom and became victorious. He is the example of love and humility that is very much needed in the times we live in.


What has been the audience reaction? 

People from different walks of life seem to be moved by the film. This makes me happy.


How has the film been received in Greece? 

Man of God was the highest-grossing film of the year in Greece. It was No. 1 at the box office for five consecutive weeks. Many people watched it multiple times. 


What has been the reaction of Orthodox clergy? 

The clergy liked and supported the film, for which I am very grateful. The life of St. Nektarios was one of prosecution and persecution, and he was predominantly prosecuted within the Church. This is not unusual, especially when it comes to the lives of the saints. Many saints have encountered similar obstacles. Members of clergy are not angels, but men that have weaknesses. One of my film’s main premises is that lust for power and riches destroys people’s souls and this world in general. Towards the end of the film, when Nektarios’ faithful friend and companion Kostas confesses: “Father, if it had been done to me what had been done to you, I wouldn’t go to church anymore,” St. Nektarios responds: “Woe to me if my faith depends on men.”


What difference to your faith did this film make?

I have experienced more miracles during shooting of this film than what I decided to put in the movie. It has certainly strengthened my faith.


Do you intend to explore spiritual themes in future films?

There is a project that I am currently working on called Moses the Black, based on the life of an Ethiopian saint. The story of St. Moses is an incredible story of repentance. He was a gang leader who became a saint and a martyr. If I manage to put it together, I think it could help people, especially those who have gotten off track and feel that there is no point of return.


What is the memory you cherish most about this production? 

I was very fortunate to have worked with so many incredible and talented people in front of and behind the camera. Most everyone working on this film was doing it from their heart, and the energy of love and support was so overwhelming that it made all obstacles fade away. 

Man of God was originally scheduled to be released in select theaters nationwide for one night only (March 21). But, due to popular demand, Fathom Events added another showing on March 28.