03 April 2011


Twelve Things about Pope Joan

12. "Perhaps the greatest urban legend in the world is that of 'Pope Joan' . . ." So begins a review I sent in for the May 2011 issue of Atlas TV Guide.

But in all fairness, "Pope Joan" has grown too big to be a mere urban legend and now probably falls under the Conspiracy Theory banner. For isn't the whole point of a conspiracy theory to give those who swallow it a sense of superiority over the gullible sheeple who don't? Bring this up at a mixed gathering and even those who don't care either way will get a sneaky twinkle in their eyes at the chance to ask the question, "But how do you know it never happened?"

11. On the other hand, perhaps it is the Urban Legend genre that has grown too small. For Urbs Roma, even farces and fables need to be epic in scale--and this one about a literate, intelligent, politically savvy, cross-dressing woman fooling every man in Rome into accepting her as the Pope totally meets the standard.

10. This movie, however, meets few standards. The story is disjointed; the editing is confusing; the lines are often lame; and the otherwise splendid actress (or so I hear) Liv Ullmann, who plays our lead, can't seem to act her way out of a burlap bag.

And of all the faults of this film, it is the last which deals the death blow. Joan is supposed to be so effective at pretending to be a man that she fools all of Rome. But who can buy that when Ullmann can barely pretend to be Joan?

9. Admittedly, Joan is a very convoluted character complex person. In the course of her life, we see her fill many different roles: adorable child prodigy, diligent student of Scripture, dedicated missionary, chaste nun, manuscript writer, humble monk, dutiful priest, charismatic preacher, clever cardinal, and finally, beloved pope. It's almost as if all by herself she is meant to be the microcosm of the Middle Ages.

Of course, what she's never going to be, is a canonised saint.
And what was the medieval cosmos without the saints?
Medieval Epic Fail!

8. With this coming out in the 1970s and all, I'm sure Joan was intended to be a feminist icon. But the ideology of that age couldn't celebrate women without putting down men . . . and there was a point when I wondered whether the movie's theme is that men are responsible for all the problems in the world the Catholic Church every woman's life.

7. But not all the men here are awful! Trevor Howard is just delightful as Pope Leo (IV?). I suppose the filmmakers realised that having both a "female pope" and an awful (male) pope would be overkill for everyone except the most rabid anti-Catholics. Even the newer movie about "Pope Joan," Die Papstin, reportedly has a warm, exuberant and adorable "Pope Sergius" to be the immediate predecessor of the "Papess."

6. Perhaps my favourite scene--and I don't say this cheesily--is the one in which the fate of the new "Brother John" is sealed. The (Holy Roman?) Emperor wants "him" ordained because the army needs more priests. The bishop hesitates to ordain such a young-looking monk whose formation is still under question.

Bishop: (To "Brother John") What do you know of canonical law, my son?

Emperor Lothair: (Interrupting) Canonical law, my ass! Ordain the mewling bastard! Men out there are dying, with their mortal souls in danger, and this pompous, sanctimonious Pharisee talks of "canonical law"! . . . I am a Christian despite clergy, not because of them! . . . Useless hypocrite!

It's a bit one-sided, yes, but it's a great representation of the ancient conflict between "Church and State," as it played out in the Middle Ages, when the men of the State were often devout and the men of the Church were often political.

It's also quite ironic. Canonical law states very clearly that women cannot be ordained. Lothair's arguments are often repeated by modern advocates of "women's ordination," and modern bishops face even worse pressure to cave in.

5. Now, if you think "Church vs. State" is bad, wait until it's squared with the eternal Battle of the Sexes!

Since the "Pope Joan" legend says that she was exposed after giving birth in public, we naturally assume she had a lover. This movie pairs the new "papess" with no less than the new (Holy Roman?) Emperor. It seems to be the same relationship we saw with Lothair and the Bishop . . . but that classic formula doesn't carry the question--in real life or in allegory--about what kind of child the Church and the State would make.

Or--to put it baldly--what kind of sex they would have. But the handling of the answer is so bad that it actually sapped the gorgeous Franco Nero of all his sex appeal. (Which is just wrong.)

4. Now admit it: those lurid bits are what really sell this story. If it weren't for the titillating element of sex in the Vatican, would anyone think there was more to "Pope Joan" than an idle satire of some "effeminate" tenth-century pope?

3. Just when I was seriously thinking that the movie wasn't too bad . . . I watched the last scene.

Worst. Ending. Ever.

And I don't say that lightly.

I seriously can't imagine anything sucking more in both concept and execution. Director Michael Anderson should be ashamed of himself.

2. While "Paul Is Dead" will always be my favourite conspiracy theory, I cannot deny my fierce love-hate relationship with "Pope Joan".

I love it because it truly is fascinating to imagine a woman rising that high in the Church hierarchy and the scandal being successfully stricken from all official records. I hate it because some people do more than imagine it and go as far as to believe it. If they ever make a serious movie about "Paul [Being] Dead," I will have a field day.

1. Finally, does anyone else find it funny that Pope Joan came out the same year as Brother Sun Sister Moon?

I looked it up because I wondered whether the latter had influenced the former, and after I learned the truth--that they're fraternal twins of a sort--I was in stitches. (Pope Joan, of course, gets to be the evil twin.)

Image Source: a) Pope Joan DVD, b) Brother Sun Sister Moon DVD


elena maria vidal said...

Thank you! Great review! Now I never have to see it!

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm glad to have done you this small service, Elena! =)

Belfry Bat said...

Point 8: double struck-out funny LOL rofl!!@!1

The corollary is that if a woman must needs have a baby, it's better for mother that baby be baby girl. And where does baby girl come from? Or maybe she'd prefer the elephant lifestyle? But, Oh! what a lazy philosophy...

Enbrethiliel said...


Well, men have to be blamed for something. ;-)

In fairness, this movie makes a very good case for cloistering women religious and barring most men from entry. Joan would have been safe and happy among the nuns, if the Emperor's army hadn't taken for granted that they could ride up and expect the community's hospitality. The cloister is not about the bondage of women (although I'm sure it has been abused), but about their freedom to live unmolested and at peace.

Paul Stilwell said...

The "Twin Movie" phenomenon is something I think about; and I believe it is quite common.

Word verification: demicab

Isn't that what they call certain forms of public transport in the Philippines?

Enbrethiliel said...


Ha! They're actually "pedicabs," but that's close. =)

I had no idea "twin movies" were that common! Which other pairs can you name?

Paul Stilwell said...

A good example is Explorers and The Goonies. Sean Astin actually auditioned for both, and both have twin monologues: The "This is our time, down here" in The Goonies, and a similar one in Explorers, except in Explorers the monologue involves them going up - not down - into space. Obviously Explorers has nothing on The Goonies. Nonetheless they are twins.

When Steven Soderbergh released his bullcrap "remake" of Tarkovsky's Solaris, on the very same release day, Criterion released their edition of the original Solaris on dvd. I'm pretty sure (and I should look it up) that the timing was not planned by anyone. It just "so happened" that way.

There's others but I can't remember them right now for some reason!

Paul Stilwell said...

I'm sorry to make another comment just after my last, but I have to say something.

The Twin Movies Phenomenon Game should allow for a "two year" difference. Obviously anything more would ruin it, but this is why it should allow for the difference: because often a film released the following year was being made at the same time as the other, and even if not, it's really not plausible that it consciously got any ideas from the previous film. And sometimes movies released in the same year were in different stages of production at far earlier times than each other.

Thus you have Unforgiven released in 92. The following year you have Sniper. What? someone might say to that. The underrated Sniper is very much a western formula. It's a Military film, but there's something noirish about it also. In both films you have the rookie who claims to have killed. In both you have the rookie killing for the first time and finding it not very nice. In both you have a character who finds himself unable to kill someone.

Did you know Encino Man has a twin? Not in the following year but in the previous! Frankenstein: The College Years. It was a made-for-tv movie. Now, as much as I liked Encino Man when it came out (saw it on video) the fact is I laughed waaaaay more at Frankenstein. I fondly remember the evening I came across it when it first aired without having heard anything about it and found it quite hilarious, and my friend Ryan asking me at school the next day if I had watched Frankenstein: The College Years. Ah, when the 90's were still the 80's and The Cosby Show was still on (and Dinosaurs).


Enbrethiliel said...


I feel sad that the first example I thought of, right after you posted your first comment in this thread, actually, was the two "Lambada movies": the first is Lambada and the second is The Forbidden Dance. I haven't watched either of them, but I suspect that they resemble each other in both looks and personality. =P And that I'll pass on both, thanks!

Oh, now that we're playing this game, the answers are flying in faster! Who could forget the year of Deep Impact and Armageddon?

Another interesting point of discussion: Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich seem to be twin directors. You won't have an easy time pairing their films off, but their respective ouvres nonetheless get thrown together a lot . . . like cousins at birthday parties.

And I hadn't known Encino Man had a twin! Thanks so much for the tip. =D

Enbrethiliel said...


Just so you don't feel bad leaving two comments one after the other, I'll do the same!

Poor "Pope Joan" from the high cinematic 70s . . . upstaged in her own combox discussion by over-the-top 80s, 90s and even "Noughties" movies! =P

Paul Stilwell said...

Hey, Deep Impact and Armageddon - that's a good one!

I mean, the movies suck, as I'm sure you agree, but it's a good twin find!:)

The high cinematic 70's frankly deserves it!

BTW, if Armegeddon sucks so bad, why is it that I can still watch it?

Enbrethiliel said...


Hey, I never said Armageddon sucked! =P

Not only is it the better film of the two, but it's the one people will keep watching for years to come. It's no Aliens, but it has that je ne sais quoi . . .