Cross-dressing is a matter of survival for the daughter of a Medieval Priest who, through bold faced determination and random fate, rises to become Pope.
There was a rumour doing the rounds in the Thirteenth Century that a woman had held that most revered position of Pope four hundred years previously. Apparently this pious person had dressed as a man and fooled everyone about her sex until coming unstuck when she suddenly gave birth in a procession from St Peters. Word was that she was torn apart by a furious crowd and buried on site at what had, up until that time, been called The Sacred Way – renamed ‘Shunned Street’ thereafter.
Naturally, the Church suppressed the story and removed any mention of her name from their lists so there is no record of this peculiar event. But according to American writer Donna Woolfolk Cross, who wrote the novel on which this film is based, the Medieval legend of Pope Joan has legs.
Tigerlily Hutchinson plays the enigmatic Johanna aged 6 to 9, handing the baton over to Lotte Flack and finally Johanna Wokalek to carry all the way to Rome. Along the way she encounters all sorts of persecution until a benevolent benefactor comes to her rescue. Count Gerold is kindly knight played by David Wenham who encourages Johanna’s inquiring mind by constructing a model of a Greek apparatus that will later bring her in to favour with the reigning Pope.
John Goodman is cast way against type as Pope Sergius the Second who stands firm against the invading Franco King thanks to Johanna’s full-scale realisation of the contraption. And he does an impressive job too with an overblown British accent somehow giving him more authority despite the fact that the real Sergius was Italian.
But authority wasn’t the be all and end all of papacy. Being a pope was quite a sport in the late Ninth Century. Between 882 and 1046 there were no less than 37 of them, some only lasting a few weeks, and many not so Holy either. It’s unlikely that a woman would’ve made it through the ranks of these power-crazed men, especially the one played here by Wokalek who unfortunately has very little chemistry with Wenham’s character (Franka Portente was originally cast in the role and she might’ve been more persuasive, or even Suzanne Bertish who plays the narrator here).
It’s more probable that this story was anti Catholic propaganda generated to usurp the Throne of Saint Peter. Still it makes for an interesting film plot. There was one made in 1972 starring Liv Ullman called She Who Would Be Pope released in America as The Devil’s Imposter. This one, Pope Joan, is a big budget German production, helmed by Sonke Wortman with cinematography by Marcel Barsotti and production design by Hans Funk. It’s a visually rich and entertaining romantic drama, and if nothing else, it should get feminists thinking about why it is that women were, and still are, barred from that most powerful position.Get Pope Joan