In a somewhat miraculous turn of events, Man of God—not the sort of film that normally attracts a huge audience—was the fourth highest-grossing film on its one-night-only U.S. premiere. This exceeded expectations for a faith-based film…like, a lot. Given the movie’s unexpected success, Fathom Events has added a second showing, scheduled for Monday, March 28. If you read my entire essay below, you’ll know that I recommend this movie, especially to Christians who are not familiar with Orthodox spirituality. If you’d like to find out more information on where you can see Man of God or if you’d like to buy tickets in advance, please follow this link.
This previous Monday, Yelena Popovic’s Man of God appeared in American cinemas for one night courtesy of Fathom Events, the distribution company that brings hard-to-see content to audiences across North America. Their regular programs include The Met: Live, featuring live performances from New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and Turner Classic Movie’s Big Screen Classics series. They’re hosting a Studio Ghibli festival this year. They also specialize in low-budget faith-based movies, most of them aimed at Evangelicals. These movies range from pretty cheesy to pretty awful. Man of God was neither cheesy nor awful. Although it wasn’t an especially good piece of filmmaking (more on that below), I’d recommend it to Christians of any denomination, particularly those who know little about Greek Orthodoxy. Such viewers will see a side of Christianity they’ve never seen before.
The screening I attended on Monday was nearly packed with church groups and, I noticed, several Orthodox churchgoers from my community—more Orthodox Christians than usually attend faith-based movies, I’m sure. People have been buzzing about this movie across Orthodox Twitter and Orthodox message boards, subreddits, and Facebook groups. Man of God premiered a year ago at the Moscow International Film Festival, where it won the Audience Choice Award for Best Film, but the very first screening was for an audience of monks on Mount Athos. I felt duty-bound to go, even if I was skeptical about the quality of any faith-based film, even an Orthodox film shot in Greece and produced in partnership with the famous Vatopedi Monastery.
Like I said, I had problems with the film’s style and script. One problem I didn’t have was Aris Servetalis’s portrayal of Nectarios of Aegina, a bishop of Alexandria and Orthodox saint who, at the turn of the twentieth century, maintained an unshakable faith through a life of great difficulty and constant betrayal by the Church he dutifully served. The fact that Servetalis nailed the role is a very big deal, because I’ve never seen a saint (or Jesus, the most challenging role of all) portrayed so well in a movie.
How do you tell an engaging story about a saint? And how do you tell the story of Christ, who was fully human but also fully God, who lived without sin? The problem with such a task is that sin is what tends to make stories interesting. Ever since the emergence of modern literature (Cervantes in Spanish and Shakespeare in English, along with Chaucer the Forerunner), storytelling has relied on complex, flawed characters who possess conflicting goals and enormous gaps in their self-knowledge. The engine in nearly every modern story is fueled by a character’s contradictions, limitations, and conflicts, both internal and external. And these modern sensibilities have deep roots. As far back as the classical Greek dramatists, stories were driven by a protagonist’s hamartia, his or her “fatal flaw.”
A saint is a different matter. Kierkegaard famously argued that to be pure of heart is “to will one thing.” For a saint, that one thing comprises divine love, holiness, righteousness, heavenly things—in short, God, and not much else. This is all the more complicated when the protagonist is Jesus. How do you tell a story about such a person, someone whose life is driven by a singular focus?
The medievals were good at this sort of thing, but their stories—told in passion plays and other religious dramas—lacked the conflict and round characters that modern audiences demand. And those medieval writers (like Chaucer) whose works have survived the centuries tended to anticipate modern tastes with their comically inept knights and bawdy midwives. Even Dante, who composed his magnificent Comedy for medieval tastes but who also anticipated modernity, struggled to render a depiction of Paradise that was as interesting as his Inferno or Purgatory.
So how are we to effectively portray saints, or Jesus, within a twenty-first-century narrative?
Most modern storytellers have dealt with this dilemma by focusing on a saint’s struggle, the difficulty every saint encounters when reconciling their sinful nature to their holy aspirations. We see a lot of anger, jealously, fornication, and other sexy details of the saint’s life before he turns to God, and once he does, we witness the struggle of his journey to live a heavenly life on earth. The pain, the sweat, and the tears: it’s all there, it’s all Gethsemane, which the modern view finds relatable.
Those films that do attempt to portray the saintly life as pure and holy tend to come off as goofy. I’m thinking of Franco Zeffirelli’s saintly portrayal of Francis of Assisi, Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972). Zeffirelli’s pure-hearted Francis is a happy hippie, more a flower child than a joyous sufferer for Christ. The film was dated almost as soon as it was released.
Portrayals of Jesus are even more difficult to get right. They tend to veer toward either the divine or the human, without effectively capturing either.
Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977), a miniseries I admire a lot, presents Christ as exclusively divine, otherworldly, a tone it achieves through casting. Robert Powell is a pale, light-haired, blue-eyed Christ, and while many find this distracting, it actually works for me. Powell’s physical appearance creates such a strong contrast with the many darker-skinned actors who play the multi-ethnic Palestinians surrounding Jesus. Powell’s Christ is clearly not of this world.
Pier Paolo Pasolini used a similar strategy in his classic Jesus movie, The Gospel According to Matthew (1964). Pasolini was unabashedly anti-Christian and an open homosexual, a pariah in the religious and macho Italian culture of his time. (Pasolini was brutally murdered by a 17-year-old boy whom he had propositioned, although some have suggested he was assassinated, one in a series of government/mafia reprisals against left-wing activists; Pasolini was a communist.) Pasolini is best known for his lascivious Trilogy of Life films and for his downright pornographic Salo. He chose to adapt St. Matthew’s Gospel because, in his words, “John was too mystical, Mark too vulgar, and Luke too sentimental.” (Hey, whatever floats your boat.) Despite these comments and despite Pasolini’s predilection for the profane, The Gospel According to Matthew is surprisingly respectful, even reverent. The film even won the Vatican’s approval!
Pasolini’s famous neorealism serves him extremely well in this film: the spartan set design and stark, black-and-white cinematography convey the antiquity and simplicity of the Gospel text. The dialogue is lifted entirely from the St. Matthew without additions. And the film’s Jesus is extremely well-cast: Pasolini chose an unknown 19-year-old actor named Enrique Irazoqui. Although Irazoqui’s voice was dubbed over with another actor’s, his physical presence conveys both physical fragility and supernatural authority (he’s also more than a little eerie, as the Son of God must have been). The film isn’t particularly exciting, especially for someone like me, who doesn’t prefer Italian neorealism. But the portrayal of Jesus is effective.
Perhaps the most famous recent portrayal of Christ on film is Jim Caviezel’s, in Mel Gibson’s very much R-rated The Passion of the Christ (2004). Gibson is well-known as a devout, even reactionary Catholic, and others have pointed out that Passion is not an adaptation of the Gospels so much as an adaptation of the stations of the cross. It’s a Grünewald altarpiece come to life. In this regard, it succeeds brilliantly, if bloodily.
But how does Caviezel’s Jesus stack up? He is (unsurprisingly) Brian Holdsworth’s favorite cinematic Jesus (more on Holdsworth below); for me, he doesn’t convey Christ’s humanity or divinity, just his sheer physicality. I don’t say that as a criticism of The Passion or Caviezel’s performance. As I noted above, the film isn’t a narrative about Jesus’s life but is rather a visual recitation the stations of the cross. It’s a cinematic adaptation of the walls of a Catholic cathedral, rendered into violent hyperrealism.
There is one lovely moment, at the beginning of The Passion, when Jesus playfully interacts with his mother, and we can see His humanity. Elsewhere, we are struck by the undeniable, otherworldy beauty of Caviezel’s face (which Terrence Malick used so well in The Thin Red Line, in which Caviezel also played a Christ figure). In such moments, we get a sense of Christ’s divinity. But on the whole, Caviezel acts mostly as a vacuum into which we can insert our own ideas about Jesus. Perhaps this is why Holdsworth likes the performance; he can insert his conservative views into this Jesus, just as a liberal Catholic (or someone like me) might insert their own views, because Gibson’s Jesus hardly expresses anything at all. This is Jesus as a raw, flesh-and-blood sacrifice. The Passion is the doctrine of substitutionary atonement set to film, which is why I think it plays better for Protestants and Catholics than it does for Orthodox Christians, who have slightly different ideas about how salvation works.
So a few films—Zeffirelli’s, Pasolini’s, and moments in Gibson’s—attempt to portray Christ’s divinity. But most modern portrayals of Christ focus on His humanity. This is, after all, the most accessible half of his nature for modern audiences. Harold Bloom once complained that novels about Jesus reveal more about the author than they do the Son of God; movies and television series tend to reveal more about their audiences than they do Jesus. I will consider two offenders: first, Martin Scorsese’s controversial, even heretical The Last Temptation of Christ (which I admire, despite the fact that it’s blasphemous, according to no less than its Calvinist screenwriter, Paul Schrader). Second, I want to address the recent streaming hit, The Chosen.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) is designed to cater to the arthouse scene, and nearly every aspect of the film reflects a film buff’s tastes and sensibilities. So what do I like about it? Well, first of all, I’m a film buff, so the movie caters to me. I also like the cast a lot. Harvey Keitel’s Judas is badass, a zealot who wants Christ to be a worldly revolutionary, a role that Willem Dafoe’s Jesus rightly rejects. The zealots’ futile urban warfare against the Romans is realistic, the kind of street violence Scorsese loves to portray. The apostles are initially dunces. They are earnest but never quite understand exactly what they’re part of, and who it is they’re following (at least until the end). Victor Argo, a character actor, is perfectly cast as St. Peter, a tough and loyal everyman. André Gregory is terrifying as John the Baptist. David Bowie is delightfully urbane and aloof as Pontius Pilate. Harry Dean Stanton makes a hilarious cameo as St. Paul. One weak bit of casting: Barbara Hershey is too sexy as St. Mary Magdalene, and I don’t quite buy her interpretation of the character. The graphic sex scene between the Magdalene and her clients, which Jesus watches, is extremely uncomfortable, although I suppose that’s the point.
The Magdalene scenes were undoubtedly what elicited the extreme backlash against the film, which was frequently screened privately due to death threats against those involved in the production. Scorsese was forced to hire bodyguards for a time. The film inspired at least one terrorist attack. I remember hearing about The Last Temptation of Christ in church in the late 1990s, a decade after its initial release. Among Christians of all stripes (except, perhaps, the most liberal), the film’s reputation was only a notch below the Antichrist’s. When I finally saw it, in college, I was shocked by its content but also surprised by its many moments of reverence for the Gospels. Piss Christ this ain’t.
What makes The Last Temptation a truly fascinating movie, besides Scorsese’s always superb directing, is Dafoe as Jesus. Dafoe is a handsome, masculine, but unusual-looking man, certainly not a pretty man. I have a hard time imagining Jesus as someone with a conventionally handsome face (I refer you to the lazy-eyed Christ Pantocrator icon of St. Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai), so Dafoe works well in the role. But he plays up Jesus’s human nature: his Christ is tortured, confused, full of self-doubt, and emotionally weak. He struggles with temptation, not just in the desert but in the whorehouse. (The latter rightly offended devout audiences. I suppose the Gospels say that Jesus spent time with prostitutes, though not necessarily during their interactions with clients. At the very least, He knew what these women were up to before they followed Him.) Dafoe’s Christ is sinless, to be sure. But he is fully human, and boy, does The Last Temptation show us that.
What I do like about Dafoe’s Jesus is that he’s a weird guy. The historical Jesus, the Son of God, must have seemed a little weird to people. Dafoe captures a bit of Jesus’s otherworldly nature in scenes where he interacts with Satan, where he interacts with the prophet Isaiah, and where he (temporarily) picks up an axe (symbolizing earthly power) and shows the apostles his beating heart. On the whole, however, Dafoe plays Jesus as a sadsack. Sure, He has a little fun now and then, and cracks jokes here and there. As his mission on earth progresses, he becomes a bit more confident, which is good. But on the whole, Dafoe’s Christ is too dreary.
If you don’t like the film’s final sequence, when Jesus hallucinates from the cross about the life he’s giving up (including, yep, sexual intercourse with his imagined wives: he has two), well, I don’t blame you. It’s blasphemous, like Schrader said, because it’s treating Jesus as a metaphor for humanity, or for religious doubt, or something. This isn’t sacred art. But as profane art, I think it works pretty well. Scorsese is, after all, a master filmmaker who cares very much about Catholic matters, even if he doesn’t practice the faith anymore.
I have seen parts of The Chosen (2017 – present), but not very much of it. Brian Holdsworth, who I’ve engaged in one-sided debates on this blog, produced an entire video on why he won’t watch The Chosen. I encourage you to watch his video (below). He admits he hasn’t seen it at all, and I think it’s pretty ballsy to post a video criticizing a television series you haven’t watched even in part. But I actually agree with many of the points he makes in the video, including the point I’ve made above: that cinematic portrayals of Jesus focus too much on his human nature and rarely capture his divine nature at all. Holdsworth goes so far as to suggest that no cinematic portrayal of Jesus can work—that the Christ story is resistant to cinematic narrative, that movies will always get Jesus wrong, that there’s something inherent in film that disqualifies it as sacred art. It’s an interesting point and one worth considering. Frankly, I think any portrayal of Jesus outside the Bible or holy iconography is going to get something wrong, but I give Holdsworth kudos for making a bold claim about the limits of filmmaking. I like bold claims.
I don’t want to be a hypocrite and review The Chosen without watching all of it, something I just criticized Holdsworth for doing. But I do want to echo his main point, based on what I have seen. As He is portrayed in the series, Jesus is very human and very buddy-buddy with everyone He meets. This is a kind, loving, totally chill Jesus, a totally regular guy. In a moment that absolutely drives me insane, Jesus actually prepares, struggles with, and has Matthew write down the Sermon on the Mount. He treats the Sermon as a big “event,” and the apostles create a hype machine to get the masses excited for it. Everything has to be perfect, Mary Magdalene says. This Sermon is going to be huge. The whole subplot is meant to cater to The Chosen‘s obviously Evangelical audience, who are accustomed to celebrity pastors, who craft their sermons like movie scripts or stadium concerts. But it also completely undercuts the oral tradition of the Church, catering to the Protestant emphasis on the written word above all else. The idea that the Sermon on the Mount had to be recorded in the moment is for me, an Orthodox Christian, infuriating. It also takes all the spontaneity out of the Sermon on the Mount, a sermon that expresses the truth of the Gospel, a sermon that the Son of God would be able to articulate off-the-cuff. The fact that Jesus stood up and spoke those holy words without a script, without reciting anything, would have inspired awe in His audience. No hype needed.
Like I said, in the parts of The Chosen that I have watched, actor Jonathan Roumie and series creator Dallas Jenkins (is there a more perfectly Evangelical name than “Dallas”?) present Jesus as affable, funny, sweet, even cute. It’s a little unclear why the people he interacts with have such dramatic, “my-life-is-forever-changed” reactions to such an ordinary dude. This Jesus is a little too kind for my taste, a little too friendly. This Jesus doesn’t scare anyone. He doesn’t threaten anyone. His enemies are unreasonable in their hatred of Christ; they seem to oppose him because, well, they’re just mean people! But the Christ of the Gospels threatens the Jewish leadership because He is legitimately threatening to their political system, to their religious institutions, and to their conception of God’s covenant with them. He is here to literally change the world, to (as St. Maximus the Confessor said) create a new way of being human. You don’t do that without ruffling a few feathers. Not everyone who resisted Jesus was being unreasonable; they had a lot to lose. After all, Jesus came to turn brother against brother, to bring not peace but a sword. Nothing about Roumie’s Jesus is sword-wielding.
If you like The Chosen, I don’t blame you. Unlike so many faith-based projects (including Man of God), it’s extremely well-directed and well-written. In our much-touted Golden Age of Television, The Chosen has accurately been declared “prestige TV” for Christians. Ben Shapiro, every conservative Christian’s favorite member of the tribe, described The Chosen as “a huge leap forward for faith-based entertainment.” It’s certainly a huge leap forward in terms of its script, acting, and production value. But it’s missing something that every faith-based entertainment should possess and that too few do: a genuine sense of the sacred, the set-apartness inherent to all holy things. The Last Temptation tries to convey this aspect of Christ in its own weird way; perhaps The Chosen does, too. Either way, I don’t want to relate to Jesus on a purely human level. I don’t want to be “pals” with Him. I don’t want to grab a beer or enjoy a nice Merlot with someone whose body and blood I literally eat and drink every Sunday, with awe and reverence.
Let’s return to Man of God. Unlike the films I’ve discussed above, Man of God does not portray Christ, much to its advantage. Although some cinematic portrayals of Christ interest, entertain, and even move me, I have to agree with Holdsworth that portraying Christ in narrative form (literature or cinema) is basically a losing gambit. Popovic’s task is easier, but only slightly: she has chosen to portray a true saint. Most filmmakers would take the approach that Scorsese, Dallas Jenkins, and so many others have taken with Christ, emphasizing Nectarios’s humanity, his sinful nature, his corrupted flesh, and his struggle to be holy. Popovic, thankfully, does not.
I’ll get my complaints out of the way. The film’s editing is sloppy, abruptly cutting from shot to shot and scene to scene in a series of terrible jerks. The cinematography is…really bad. The beauty of the film’s incredible locations (including several gorgeous churches) is almost completely obscured, cast into the background by hundreds of needless close-ups and a shallow depth of field. The cinematographer was much too impressed by his ability to bring the foreground into focus while everything in the background smears into a shapeless blur. I understand why they chose the dark tint—it contributes to the verisimilitude of a film set in Egypt and Greece in the early twentieth century. A few Catholic reviewers have suggested that the many close-ups represent Nectarios’s detachment from worldly affairs and that the film’s muted hue represents the dreariness of a fallen world, which, fair enough.
The film’s score was composed by the master Zbigniew Preisner. You might know him from the films of Krzysztof Kieślowski, for whom he wrote one of the most heartbreaking works of contemporary classical music, Requiem for My Friend (you can find it on Spotify). Preisner is one of the great film composers, but he’s clearly on autopilot here.
Popovic’s script is a masterclass in telling-not-showing. Her characters never fail to explain the plot to us. I wish they would just let the plot unfold. The only thing we are not explicitly told is why the Orthodox hierarchy hates Nectarios so much. This missing detail is unfortunate, because the vendetta against Nectarios is the central plot point of the entire film. The real-life Nectarios’s biography reveals that his fellow bishops were simply jealous of his popularity. This would certainly inspire them to punish Nectarios and send him into exile, but the film goes overboard in its depiction of their furious resentment. The real-life Nectarios truly suffered from horrible persecution—his career was destroyed and his life made miserable—but his persecution by the Church was likely expressed with more subtlety and more political intrigue than it is in the film, if not less vindictiveness.
In the film’s opening scene, we watch three bishops, played by three actors struggling to act, plot against Nectarios. Their dialogue is absurd; they all but say, “We are meeting here in this room to plot against Nectarios.” Again, they don’t reveal why they dislike him so much, except for a vague apprehension that Nectarios, if elected Patriarch of Alexandria (a position he seems destined to occupy), would give all the Church’s money to the poor. Nectarios is extremely generous, giving alms whenever he can to whomever he encounters. But he is also practical with money when the situation requires it, as when he successfully organizes a convent with virtually no outside support. He’s not generous to a fault, and money does seem to appear (literally) miraculously whenever he needs it. Is this truly why the bishops were so worried about him?
A simpler explanation exists within the film: the bishops are threatened by Nectarios’s humility, his sheer saintliness and consequent popularity with the people of Egypt. This conforms with the details of his biography. The Alexandrian Church is portrayed as little more than a hive of Pharisees, corrupt moneygrubbers, and stooges for the Tewfik government (itself the handmaiden of the British Protectorate), and this also likely conforms with reality. But in the film, the bishops’ violent disdain for Nectarios is wildly disproportionate to anything he does (or can be construed as doing). Popovic does not do nearly enough to show us why this saint threatens the status quo. Such a task would not have been difficult: after all, saints regularly threaten the status quo.
All the slander against the ethnically Greek Nectarios sends him to Athens, where he discovers, to his surprise, that he is not technically a Greek citizen and cannot occupy any meaningful position within the Greek Church. After an unsuccessful tenure as a preacher to a community of inexplicably hostile parishioners (the film’s strangest scene), Nectarios journeys to Mount Athos for some much-needed spiritual clarity. He eventually lands a position as director of an ecclesiastical high school, whose secular-minded president, Christos (Christos Loulis, a very fine actor), laments that most of the school’s students are studying for the priesthood. Christos would prefer that they seek more prestigious careers and become the kind of men who will improve Greece’s standing in the world (remember, Greece is not even a century old at this time). He immediately distrusts Nectarios, and his objections to the holy man are much clearer than those of the Orthodox hierarchy. Christos is frank: “I don’t like your Church. I don’t like your asceticism. We are trying to build a modern nation and your ascetical ways are dragging us into the past.” (I don’t have the script in front of me, so I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the basic sentiment.)
Nectarios also acquires a loyal assistant at the school, a young man named Kostas (Russian actor Alexander Petrov, who does a very fine job in this role but maintains a distracting Russian accent—I did not realize until researching for this review that he was supposed to be Greek). Kostas successfully publishes Nectarios’s spiritual writings, which become a sensation with the public. But the slander from Alexandria (which, again, is never really explained) follows Nectarios, and his newfound fame earns him no position within the Greek Church. He resigns from the high school after receiving his Metropolitan’s blessing to form a convent on the island of Aegina (hence “Nectarios of Aegina”).
But the slander continues to follow him, threatening his position even at the backwater nunnery. He is persecuted by the Church, by the local community, by the local government…by pretty much everyone but his nuns and Kostas, who are loyal to the end. And the end isn’t pretty. His spirit grows stronger, but he ages rapidly and ungracefully (the old age makeup in this movie is excellent). Late in life, he is falsely accused of fornicating with nuns, which results in the film’s most disturbing scene, when a government official hires a doctor to inspect a woman’s virginity. Nectarios eventually suffers horribly from prostate cancer until he dies, faithfully praying to the end and even performing a miracle in his last moments, in a moving scene featuring the film’s biggest name, Mickey Rourke (yep, that Mickey Rourke).
As I’ve said, I was irritated by the furious irrationality of the Church’s vendetta against Nectarios, who by all accounts should have become Patriarch of Alexandria, as nearly every sympathetic character in the film repeats again and again. But perhaps the Church’s apparent lack of motivation serves a purpose, at least within the context of the script. We see the persecution from Nectarios’s perspective. He is earnestly ignorant of any wrongdoing; the motives of the Church must seem utterly baffling to him. But I’m inclined to think that Popovic is simply not a skilled screenwriter. (I doubt I could do much better, but there’s a reason you don’t see me making films.) She wants to convey the depth of Nectarios’s suffering, and so he portrays each of the film’s many villains as mindlessly hateful of anything Nectarios says or does. This simply doesn’t work. The Church is full of hypocrites and hate, to be sure, but these hypocritical, hateful men are also human beings who try to serve God, and it would have been more interesting to explore that contradiction.
Fortunately, the film does realistically convey Nectarios’s extreme suffering and his holiness, but through Aris Servetalis’s acting, not through script and the monotonous hostility of the villains toward the saint.
I did not enjoy Man of God. It was also one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen.
Let me explain.
With the possible exception of Eugene Vodolazkin’s novel Laurus, Man of God is the best portrayal of Orthodox spirituality I’ve encountered outside the Church. Like Laurus, Man of God captures saintliness without undue emphasis on the holy man’s sinful nature. This impressive feat is the product of Aris Servetalis’s performance. What he achieves in this film is truly remarkable. Through his portrayal of Nectarios, audiences unfamiliar with Eastern Christianity will discover a true depiction of Orthodox asceticism and continuous prayer, the practices toward which Orthodox Christians aspire. Not every Orthodox Christian is an ascetic and not every Orthodox Christian prays continually. Certainly not every Orthodox Christian exhibits the love and humility that we see in this film. But saints like Nectarios offer an example which is the basis for Orthodox Christian life.
I was particularly moved by the scenes of Nectarios praying, whether at the beginning of the film, when we see him alone in his room, icons lovingly painted on the walls; or toward the end of the film, when he leans against a gorgeous icon of the Theotokos, begging the Mother of God to pray on his behalf and to watch over his spiritual children. These scenes capture the sheer physicality of Orthodox practice. Orthodox Christians prostrate themselves. They stand during liturgy. They forcefully bend over at the waist during prayer. When devout Orthodox Christians worship, they look like they’re exercising. Man of God does a wonderful job introducing this aspect of Orthodox practice to non-Orthodox audiences.
Servetalis is not only convincing in prayer, but in his actions toward others. I was amazed by how scenes that would normally reek of sentimentality felt so natural in this film. Imagine the following scenarios, all portrayed without nauseating self-righteousness: the saint sits down next to a beggar and offers him his shoes. He carries heavy rocks in a basket over his shoulders in order to build a convent practically on his own. When faced with feuding students at the high school, he chooses to discipline himself with a three-day hunger strike, inspiring the students to reconcile. When falsely accused by his Metropolitan of…whatever, he repents rather than defend himself. When the president of the high school, Christos, loses his composure and rages at Nectarios, and then apologizes for losing his temper, Nectarios replies, “No, I apologize for making you angry.” At every junction, he assumes the best of others and the worst of himself. He literally scrubs human feces off a dirty toilet because the school’s janitor is ailing.
How does Servetalis play this role so convincingly? This is not a character we should enjoy watching. Pious people often inspire feelings of guilt and resentment. We don’t like such people. So when Servetalis portrays Nectarios as an actual saint, a truly holy man of God, why do we not scoff in disbelief or recoil? I have an idea.
Servetalis and the supporting cast do not cater to modern sensibilities, but they do provide the film with tension. This tension arises not from the plot (as Aristotle would have it) or any character’s fatal flaw (as the Greek tragedians would have it) or contradictory forces within the characters (as Shakespeare or Freud would have it). Instead, the actors behave like characters in a medieval morality play. In a typical morality play, a protagonist experiences some kind of a trial or crisis. As he struggles, he encounters characters with names like Greed, Equity, Justice, Fellowship, Knowledge, etc. These characters personify aspects of human life and human society—often vices, virtues, and values that we associate with the European Middle Ages. The tension in the play derives from the protagonist’s interaction with these characters. How will he respond to the demands of Justice or Greed? Watch and see. Throughout the play, he is typically supported by angels and oppressed by demons. In the end, he either overcomes his struggles or collapses under the weight of his trials.
If we consider Man of God in light of European morality plays, many of my criticisms of the film are rendered moot. The demonic intensity of the bishops represents the oppression of actual demonic forces. The angelic loyalty of the nuns represents actual angelic support. Consider minor characters like Nectarios’s assistant Kostas; Mickey Rourke’s hospital-bound paraplegic; the drunkard in the woods; the beggar to whom Nectarios offers his shoes; the chaste nun’s bitter mother; and the Egyptian man who struggles to believe in God’s benevolence. These characters all embody abstractions. They are not round, but wonderfully flat. Each of them is a generalization about the world and the trials we encounter in it. They are whetstones that sharpen Nectarios’s character, that sharpen him into convincing, unsentimental saint.
I am reminded of literary critic Alex Woloch’s excellent monograph, The One v. the Many. I cannot do justice to Woloch’s sophisticated argument here (if you’ve read this far, God bless you, I don’t think you would be able to endure it). In short: Woloch analyzes how modern minor characters, the kind you find in novels, interact in a complex dance with the protagonist and with the overall narrative structure. Think of the supporting cast in novels by Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. Such characters acquire depth very quickly through what Woloch calls “implied personhood,” which is a product of that dance. Consequently, you encounter dozens of characters who seem fully realized, even if they occupy only a small part of a long novel.
If modern novels give us dozens of round characters, medieval literature gives us dozens of flat characters. Medieval characters are compelling not because they acquire implied personhood through their relationship to a well-developed protagonist within in a complex narrative structure. They are compelling because they serve a narrative function within the social order of the play. Each medieval character operates according to that function. In other words, medieval literature is not about characters; it’s about the web of relationships between ideas and people that constitute society.
Consequently, medieval literature is much more social than even the most social works of Victorian realism (think of Eliot, Trollope, or Thackeray). And when we encounter Nectarios in Man of God, we encounter not a well-developed character but a series of relations. We don’t see an individual; “the individual” is, after all, an invention of liberal modernity. Instead, we see a person (“person” is a much older, much more social concept) who exists only in relationship to others and to God.
“Grant me to see my own transgressions,” says the prayer of St. Ephraim, “and not to judge my brother.” The Last Elders of Optina admonish us not to “embarrass or sadden anyone.” The greatest commandment is to love God and love your neighbor. This is the basis for Christian society, something the medievals understood, even if they struggled to achieve such a society. Modernity certainly comes with benefits, such as individual human rights, separation of church and state, and the modern novel (all good things!). But for all the flaws and terrors of the European Middle Ages, they possessed a comparatively Christian view of the social world, something that was abandoned in modernity.
Modernity reoriented our relationship to the world and to ourselves. Christos, the president of the high school, is my favorite character in the film, the one I related to the most. In his moving final scene with Nectarios, he clearly articulates the struggle of the modern man to have faith. Christos desires to understand the world, to possess secular knowledge (i.e., complete knowledge—in medieval Latin, “secular” referred to the “the world,” a closed system that can be mastered). Christos is clearly a learned, worldly man, but he admits to Nectarios that he feels no peace in his life. Perhaps his learning has undermined his well-being. Not for nothing does Thomas Aquinas define excess curiosity as a sin. Contentment, spiritual health, and peace are not products of our ability to grasp or master life. They are products of our relationships with others and with God. We do not exist as isolated perception machines vis-à-vis the world, as Enlightenment philosophy would describe us. We exist in a web of relations.
Man of God is a powerful film, one that, despite its technical flaws, captures the heart and essence of Orthodox faith. I felt a little uncomfortable watching it. I was not only moved by Servetalis’s performance, I also felt convicted by the example of St. Nictarios. I felt the weight of my sins. I felt ashamed of myself, but I also felt lighter, more peaceful. I wanted to do something, to leave the theater and immediately find a way to express my Christian faith more authentically. I wanted to find a way show charity to others, to exist in my social web more lovingly. I wanted to repent, and to pray.