by William Collen
Occasionally, a book or film will feature an utterly pure, perfectly moral character. People such as Esther Summerson (Bleak House), Bishop Myriel (Les Misérables), or Father Zossima (The Brothers Karamazov) are crafted to provide an example of an aspirational morality, or to serve as an incorruptible foil for the evil characters to expend their futile efforts on. Sometimes these characters are believable; at other times, they veer toward a treacly sentimentality, as if they are simply too good for their surroundings.
In the case of Yelena Popovic’s 2021 film Man of God, the morally perfect character is a depiction of a real person: Nectarios of Aegina, an Eastern Orthodox bishop, author, and educator who founded the Holy Trinity Monastery at Aegina Island in 1904. The film follows the last thirty years of Nectarios’ life from the time when he is unjustly slandered and driven out of Egypt, to his death at the hospital near the monastery he founded. Nectarios is portrayed as the saintly ideal, a kind and simple man and a friend of the downtrodden, whose saintliness is resented by those who don’t understand him. He is hounded and persecuted throughout his life—and when not being actively persecuted, he is the subject of misunderstandings. Through it all, Nectarios exhibits a quiet humility, never showing anger towards his tormentors, not even in his private prayers. He is troubled by the vehemence of the attack against him, and wonders aloud why it is happening or what he could have done to provoke his enemies, but he does not let his concerns overshadow his faith. In fact, when his friends share his puzzlement, he reminds them not to let the setbacks of this world shake their faith in God, who sees all and is able to work everything out.
Not being familiar with Nectarios or the events in his life, I have to take the film at its word when it implies that the accusations against Nectarios were completely unjust. It is hard for me to believe that people at even the highest levels of church government were able to slander Nectarios in such a protracted and vicious way. Of course, such power politics have happened in the church many times over the course of the ages—consider the machinations which plagued the Catholic church during the time of the Borgias, or the ongoing struggle between the moderates and the conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention—and will continue to happen, for as long as fallible and sinful humans are invested with power here on earth.
Power is a significant theme in Man of God: Nectarios conspicuously refuses to campaign for the position of Patriarch of Constantinople, despite being eminently qualified for the task. He explains to his assistant, Kostas, why he does not want the position: “When you become a Patriarch, you become a man of power. The position of power is like a cancer; it eats at you slowly, and you don’t even know it. Before you realize you can turn into something that you once despised. Many great men have fallen because of the power they were given. I would rather not fall into that trap.”
His use of the power he does have causes confusion amongst his associates at times. He refuses to punish the students at Rizarios Seminary when they fight amongst themselves; instead, he punishes himself by going on a hunger strike until they make up. This behavior gets him into trouble with the president of the seminary, who cannot understand why Nectarios is being lenient with the students, and who accuses Nectarios of an excess of ascetisicm. “We all know that Asceticism is a thing of the past—it’s dark age material,” he says. But Nectarios defends his approach to religion this way: “A true ascetic does not worry about the outward appearance at all. His main focus is to correct himself inwardly so he can get closer to God.”
Although this film is not explicitly an advertisement for the ascetic life, it could easily be interpreted as one. Nectarios’ one abiding wish is to retire to a monastery, which he eventually does. But Nectarios is not seeking to avoid the conflicts and temptations of this world by doing so. He is eminently involved in the lives of the people in Cairo and Athens and gains their respect and love; when he finally enters the monastery, he continues to befriend the people he encounters. Even on his deathbed, he strikes up a relationship with a paralyzed man who is lying next to him. Nectarios does not seek to renounce the world—on the contrary, he views his place as within the world, as a humble servant of those around him.
Perhaps the only serious flaw in this film is its one-dimensional portrayal of Nectarios’ adversaries in Cairo. Their dislike of Nectarios is never elaborated; their only stated reason for their hatred towards him is “he’s too religious.” I felt as though their portrayal was too simplistic, and I would have liked to see more of their side of the story. As it is, they are hardly substantial adversaries. They are mere setbacks or bumps in the road. But perhaps this is the lesson the filmmakers intended—those who seek to destroy the career of Nectarios may seem formidable foes from our earthly perspective, but their efforts to resist the will of God will eventually fail in the end. Psalm 2 reminds us that God considers the conspiracies against his followers to be a stale joke; He laughs, and thwarts their schemes. And even when his children suffer hardship and loss due to their enemies—Nectarios’ inability to return to his beloved friends in Cairo is a bittersweet undercurrent to most of the film—God can provide them with something else in the place of that which is lost. In the case of Nectarios, his last years at the monastery are filled with peace, joy, and confidence.
This film is beautifully shot in the olive and tawny tones of the Greek countryside, and deserves wider recognition. It is free to watch on YouTube; if you can, please give it a viewing.