Pope Joan

 (German title: Die Ppstin; 2010)

by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The legend of Pope Joan is one which has persisted in some form since the 13th century. According to the most typical version of the story, Joan was a 9th century woman who spent a lifetime disguised as a man, mostly living a monk's life. She was said to be so holy, compassionate and brilliant that she eventually rose in the church hierarchy to the very summit - the throne of Peter. She was beloved by the people and her reign ended only because of an unplanned pregnancy.

As told by the medieval chronicler Martin of Opava (cited in Wikipedia):

"John Anglicus, born at Mainz, was Pope for two years, seven months and four days, and died in Rome, after which there was a vacancy in the Papacy of one month. It is claimed that this John was a woman, who as a girl had been led to Athens dressed in the clothes of a man by a certain lover of hers . There she became proficient in a diversity of branches of knowledge, until she had no equal, and afterwards in Rome, she taught the liberal arts and had great masters among her students and audience. A high opinion of her life and learning arose in the city, and she was chosen for Pope. While Pope, however, she became pregnant by her companion. Through ignorance of the exact time when the birth was expected, she was delivered of a child while in procession from St Peter's to the Lateran, in a lane once named Via Sacra (the sacred way) but now known as the "shunned street" between the Colisseum and St Clement's church. After her death, it is said she was buried in that same place. The Lord Pope always turns aside from the street and it is believed by many that this is done because of abhorrence of the event. Nor is she placed on the list of the Holy Pontiffs, both because of her female sex and on account of the foulness of the matter (Martin of Opava, Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum)."

In reality, she could not have existed. There is no room for her regnancy between the known papal tenures, and there is absolutely no mention of her in any document - secular or sacred - until some time in the 13th century. Although some Medieval writers referred to the female Pope as John VIII, the real Pope John VIII reigned between 872 and 882, roughly the same time frame used in this film, and his life does not resemble that of the fictional female pope in any way. Other stories place Joan to have first sat on the throne of Peter in 855, upon the death of Leo IV, although there was a different and truly historical figure who actually succeeded Leo. Joan is a medieval urban legend. On the other hand, if you could travel back in time to the 14th or 15th century, you would find that this legend had become so deeply ingrained in the public consciousness that Joan of Mains was universally considered to be a historical character whose papacy had been covered up by an embarrassed inner sanctum of the Catholic Church. Boccaccio himself believed the tall tales about the female pope. Given the shameful depravity, scheming and greed which often characterized the ascension to the papacy in the 9th to 11th centuries, it is unsurprising that the legend of Pope Joan was considered totally credible, so much so that some of the church's rituals and taboos had even been retroactively linked to events related to the life of Pope Joan, notably in the case of a special kind of traditional throne with a hole like a toilet seat. The design of this chair was of unknown origin, and was retroactively explained by the need to check the pope's gender. (Another such retrofitted explanation would be the story about the Via Sacra, as cited above.)

It may have been possible in theory for a woman of those times to become pope by living her life as a man, and it may even have been possible for her to have an affair with one of her guards. Other similar scandals were commonplace in medieval times.

As the Straight Dope summarizes:

"Many other papal horror stories are entirely legit. In the Middle Ages many popes were elevated to office following the murder of their predecessors. During one particularly grim period from 882 to 1046, there were 37 popes, some of whom served only a few weeks.

Leo V (903), for instance, had been pope for only a month before being imprisoned and tortured by one Christophorus, who then enthroned himself. Both men were killed in 904 on the orders of Pope Sergius III (904-911). Sergius later had a son by his teenaged mistress Marozia who became Pope John XI (931-935). In 914, according to one chronicler, Marozia's mother Theodora installed her lover on the papal throne as John X (914-928). (Theodora and Marozia effectively controlled the papacy through their menfolk and may be the source of the Pope Joan legend.) John XII (955-963), who ascended to the papacy at 19, was accused, perhaps falsely, of sleeping with his father's mistress, committing incest with his niece, and castrating a deacon.

Murder gave way to bribery as a route to the papacy in later centuries; some 40 popes are believed to have bought their jobs. But the lax attitude toward celibacy remained unchanged. In large part this was because the Church was an important route to wealth and power. Sons of influential families were pushed into Church careers much as we might send a kid to MBA school, apparently with similar expectations regarding morals. Noblemen with mistresses saw no reason to adjust their life-styles just because they had taken vows."

A powerful, conniving woman just might have been able to ascend to the papacy in those dark days, but that was not the woman portrayed here. The Pope Joan of this film is humble, brilliant, kind and without guile, save for her gender disguise. She is selfless, and never utters a mean word. She's unrealistically one-dimensional to begin with, but if such a person could exist, she's exactly the type of person who should be pope in an ideal world. The script therefore posits a 9th century in which such a good and modest person could achieve the papacy without scheming, greed, or powerful friends. Wrong. What would have kept this person from the papacy was not her gender, but her lack of cunning and powerful alliances. Popes in that time were not holy men, but those with imperial designs. The gender issue was irrelevant in that a saintly male cleric, a man like John Paul II, had he existed in those days, would certainly not have been acclaimed pope because of the universal recognition of his goodness and benevolence.

This particular portrayal of Pope Joan was created in a recent historical novel by an American author named Donna Woolfolk Cross, who premised her work on the assumption that the Pope Joan legend is substantially true, and that her absence from the historical record can be explained by a whitewashing campaign waged by the Church. The novel places her reign as having begun in 847, upon the death of Sergius II, a time frame unique to this book. Ms Cross used this hypothesis to examine life of the 9th century, placing her particular emphasis on the place of women in society in the chaotic century following the death of Charlemagne. I haven't read the book, but I gather that the film script is closely adapted from it, based on certain literary devices, like copious first person voice-over by a narrator whose identity is an 11th hour surprise.

The running time is substantially more than two hours and the presentation style is corny and old-fashioned, exactly in the manner of a 1930s epic film, filled with multiple improbable coincidences, syrupy orchestral music, a mushy love story, last-second rescues, stereotyped white-hat heroes without flaw, and stereotyped black-hat villains who could be played by Basil Rathbone in full Guy of Gisbourne mode.

One of the stars of the film is John Goodman, who uses a pseudo-British accent to play Pope Joan's predecessor, Pope Sergius II, a real historical character who existed between 844 and 847. None of the common legends place him as Joan's predecessor in the papacy, but the details of his real life were quite similar to the events portrayed in the film, except of course that he was thin and Italian. (Why did Goodman need to affect a British accent rather than his normal midwestern American twang to play an Italian? Why, English guys just sound so much more medieval and papal, don't you know. It's movie magic!) In some of the most improbable casting in history, Goodman has now played the Pope and the King of England! Goodman was perhaps not the oddest bit of casting. He got some competition from Joanna Wokalek, who played Pope Joan starting from age 15. She looked perfectly convincing as a male, but not as a youthful one. In a supreme bit of post-modernism she was a 34-year-old woman playing a 15-year-old girl impersonating a 15-year-old boy, but looking like a 34-year-old man.

Awaiting DVD info



None of the online reviews are in English












6.3 IMDB summary (of 10)











The film received commercial distribution only in Germany and Austria. The plans to distribute it to English-speaking nations seem indefinite at this writing.












Joanna Wokalek did a rear nude scene. Did you ever think you'd enjoy looking at the pope nekkid? Since there were actually two popes in the film, we can thank God the papal nude scene was done by Wokalek and not John Goodman.













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Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


Watchable, but ...

Given that it lacks recognizable stars, it just doesn't have "summer blockbuster" written all over it, but even with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in the leads it would have limited commercial appeal, given that it's an overlong cornball historical romance about the 9th century.