Man Of God

Review by Willard Manus

MAN OF GOD is a worthy and compelling film about a Greek Orthodox priest who in 1961 was named a saint, as a reward for his remarkable achievements as a man of the cloth. Nektarios (played by Greece’s leading actor, Aris Servetalis) is a young priest in Egypt in 1890 when the film opens. His intelligence, deep faith and love for his work have endeared him to many of his peers, especially those of his generation. But Nektarios also has many enemies in the church, older and powerful priests who disapprove of his attachment to the poor and needy, his free-thinking and defiant nature.

This isn’t to say Nektarios is rebelling against the church; on the contrary, he is a true believer. But it’s a belief deeply rooted in Christ’s admonitions to participate in the suffering of the needy and afflicted. The establishment comes down hard on him, denounces him for “consorting with harlots in the street” and “being too close to people.” Accused of a trumped-up crime, he is banished from Egypt and sent to Evia, Greece and designated as a preacher (one rank below priest).

Things aren’t much easier for him there. Because he was born in a section of Greece which became Turkish after his birth, he is not considered to be a true Greek and therefore is not eligible to eventually become a village priest. So he ends up as the head master of a religious academy in Athens, where he slowly wins the trust and respect of the students and locals.

When some of his rambunctious young students throw a wild party, he is blamed for their behavior and censured for his “soft” treatment of them. To repent he goes on a three-day hunger strike, which only further enrages the authorities, who declare that “asceticism is a thing of the past.”

It goes on like that for the rest of his life. His desire to live his life as Christ did keeps getting Nektarios in trouble with the old guard. Yet he stubbornly refuses to change his ways, compromise his beliefs. Things come to a head in 1904 when, at the urging of a blind girl and her four friends (all of whom are orphans), he agrees to build a nunnery for them. He puts heart and soul into the project, only to once again run afoul of zealots. They accuse him of molesting the girls and he is put on trial, winning vindication at the eleventh hour when a court-appointed gynecologist announces that “the girls are still virgins.”

Director Yelena Popovic, shooting in desaturated color and using English-speaking actors (including Alexander Petrov and Mickey Rourke), does a masterful job in dramatizing Nektarios’ troubled, conflict-plagued life. She (and the skilled actor Servetalis) bring us close to him, a Christ-like human being whose goodness, courage and intellect (he wrote many books) were deserving of sainthood.

Nektarios summed up his life thusly: “Woe to me if my fate depends on man.”