ATHENS – Filmmakers aspire to place the viewer right then and there, and when they succeed, the experience can be shattering. Such is the case with Man of God – ‘Anthropos tou Theou’, about the life of St. Nektarios, where director and screenwriter Yelena Popovic puts you in the room, in the garden, on the street with one of Orthodoxy’s most beloved – yet tormented – modern saints, portrayed with exquisite sensitivity by Aris Servetalis.
A conversation with Popovic is very revealing – of the personal dimension in the saint’s story that helps her bring out the person, of the great care taken by everyone in the project, from the actors, including Mickey Rourke (the performers speak English, interspersed with Greek) to the director of photography, Panagiotis Vasilakis. Popovic said: “He understood me and what I wanted to do… I wanted people inside the head of St. Nektarios… and we worked from inside out: we decided on the emotional value of the scene and then determined what it would look like.”
This reporter viewed Man of God in one of Athens’ wonderful ‘Therina’ – open air cinemas. On the one hand, the dimming light of the sky above heightened the spiritual atmospherics, on the other, it didn’t matter, because Popovic had taken us somewhere else, another place, another mind, another soul.
“I read the book on directing by Elia Kazan 20 times for this script,” she said. Kazan kept her focused on one idea: “What does this mean to me…” so that people could really feel it – and they do with Man of God.
It was a challenge she relished. Even when the camera is focused on one person, the audience’s attention can be distracted by the environs, but in Man of God, the surroundings are carefully designed to bring out the Man – the ‘anthropos’. She said that “we used techniques like always leaving space above St. Nektarios’ head,” to evoke his always reaching for something higher. The colors – rich darks tones – frame the difficult life of Nektarios – and for most human beings. And the musical score, composed by Zbigniew Preisner of course, helps put the audience in touch with the man’s very soul.
One of the reasons it works, in addition to Popovic’s cinematic gifts – she studied acting and directing at Playhouse West in LA – is that she recognized that soul.
Growing up in Communist Yugoslavia, in a system that did its best to devalue and suppress religion, neither Popovic nor her family lived or even knew the Orthodox Faith – but her father somehow aspired to the most ethical life possible, if not saintly, then the purest possible in our fallen world. And the establishment reacted in exactly the way St. Nektarios experienced at the turn of the 20th century in Egypt and Greece: those in power, being able to rely only on lies and slanders, did their best to crush him, because he refused to go along with the corruption that prevailed in his field.
Her father, Dragoljub Popovic – was a brilliant civil engineer who authored books and developed formulas that would have netted him millions if patented.
“He cared very much about his workers but was a thorn in the side of the people in power,” she said. One of the themes that pervades every scene is that in all eras and contexts, “the desire for power destroys people and societies.” That was the one perspective out of many she could have chosen for the film, Popovic said.
Removed from his prestigious and high paying job, he was forced to work as a civil engineer in a small factory at ‘cleaning woman wages’ but he didn’t care.
“I lived with this, heard him criticized – even by my mother – ‘how can a man be satisfied with so little, why must he be so righteous…’ but even as a little girl I admired him for that. And I think I decided then to do what he should have done – leave Serbia.”
A path opened up for her. “In elementary school I was good at drama,” and she was groomed for an acting career – but her height and attractiveness pulled her into a modeling career. “That was my ticket out of Yugoslavia.”
She knew nothing – because she was taught nothing – about Christianity. But Popovic knew she was not alone in the Universe. “I had a feeling and I always believed that God existed. There was a Father out there.” And for her, churches are “the place where the feeling of His presence is stronger – but when I left Belgrade I did not even know who Jesus Christ or Panagia were.”
She gradually learned about Orthodoxy, and in Serbia in 2012 she bought a book about St. Nektarios. “I was there for my father’s one-year memorial. I heard about St. Nektarios and wanted to learn more. She thought it was a typical ‘life of the saints’ that would be nice light reading on the flight back to LA.
“But something else happened when she read about how the establishment persecuted St. Nectarios. It hit me on a very personal level” – like she had been there before, and then she took us there, too.