So, the story of Pope Joan is not necessarily historical — although I have, many times in my life, been told it as though it were sober fact — but it is an authentic medieval legend, first appearing in the 13th century. Details vary, but it’s usually described as the story of a 9th-century Englishwoman who disguised herself as a man and rose through the ranks of the church to become Pope. In its medieval form it’s a curious fable, later it’s a scathing attack on the authority of the Papacy, and then today it’s … well … many things. Let’s see what this modern version is all about.
So we open with a history of the popes being written in the late 9th century and Johanna’s name being left out of it. Flash back to the first quarter of the ninth century and we see Johanna growing up in a village full of thatch-roofed cottages, filth and whatnot. Her dad (Iain Glen) is the village priest, and he is a prize asshole. Johanna wants to go to school, girls can’t, kindly teacher, dad’s an asshole, shenanigans, off to school. Oh, and mum tells her all about Wotan, who gives knowledge even to girls, which I am not 100% convinced is a faithful representation of early medieval paganism but whatever.
I want to reiterate that Iain Glen really is a grade-A stinker here; clearly we are in “patriarchal authority is bad” territory, which is hardly surprising given that the “violations of patriarchal authority lol” version of the story is hardly likely to appeal much to a modern audience.
Also, we’re like 25-30 minutes into the origin story at this point. This movie is over two and a quarter hours of earnestness. Anyway, Johanna and her brother Johannes go off to school in Dortmund. They are taken to a big feast in a hall lit by raging flames on the tables, which seems unsafe. The bishop’s court is not notable for its piety; right at the beginning we see people lighting their farts, and when they get there the bishop is a fat drunk with a girl on his knee. A teacher named Odo is a sexist dick, Joan is clever, and a local nobleman, Count Gerold (David Wenham) takes her in as a companion to his daughters. His wife, Richilde, is a capital B, presumably because the filmmakers wanted to portray a female character with a stinking attitude as well. Anyone, young Johanna excels in her studies but Odo continues to be a bag. We’re 40 minutes in, so at this rate it’s going to be a while before she’s Pope.
Anyway, the medieval world is full of filth, intolerance and scoundrels doing scoundrelly things. Time passes and Johanna (now played by Johanna Wokalek) is a young woman. David Wenham has to go off to fight the Vikings, but not before he reveals he’s in love with Johanna, which is pretty creepy considering that he’s twenty-some years her senior and she was raised like a daughter in his house. When he goes off, Richilde decides to get rid of Joan by marrying her off to a suitable jerk.
I swear to God that Richilde, Odo and Iain Glen all had the same conversation with the director:
Actor: so what’s this character’s motivation? They’re just caught up in the norms of the day but they’re fundamentally a caring and empathic person with some weak points, right?
Director: I’m glad you asked that! I’ve prepared a short visual presentation that I think will really help you get the feel of this character.
Actor: This … this is just picture after picture of an anus with sand on it.
Director: Now let’s get out there and get this scene in the can.
But just as the wedding is getting underway, the Vikings attack, killing the bishop and scaring the shit out of everybody else. It is all pretty much like you’d expect, but it’s also the first exciting thing to happen in the whole movie. Johannes saves Joan from the marauding Danes but gets killed; she gets knocked out and left for dead. David Wenham comes back and is at least a little bit sad that one of his kids (or both?) got murdered. Johanna rides a horse mournfully through a forest. I just … I just want this movie to step it up from largo, you know? Anyway, she cuts her hair off, puts on her brother’s close and takes his identity (she has a letter of introduction to be a monk at Fulda for plot reasons). So Johanna is now Johannes and we’re at Fulda and everything is so stately.
So Johanna’s dad is meant to be English, which is why the legend sometimes states that Joan is English. English missionaries in 9th-century Germany would totally have been a thing, so nice one, movie! Johanna trains to be a doctor and tries to prevent everyone finding out she’s a woman. At least she can take comfort in the fact that if they do find out she’s not a man she’ll probably die of old age before they do anything about it. The monks are, you guessed it, assholes, at least most of them. Joan saves a poor family from filth, squalor and disease, continuing her trend of, y’know, piety, charity and good works.
There is a quick battle scene to indicate that we’re in the bit where the empire splits up, and then there’s a fever sweeping through the monastery. Johanna is terrified that the medical exam will reveal she’s a girl, but the kindly old doctor reveals he’s known forever and helps her escape. She passes out from the fever and is rescued by Arn, the now-grown son of the family she helped out earlier. Quiet pastoral idyll happens, and Johanna mentors Arn’s young daughter, but in the end decides to go on a pilgrimage to Rome. John Goodman is the Pope and he isn’t well; his minions send for Johanna. The other doctors are dicks. They don’t believe in Hippocrates because he wasn’t a Christian, which I don’t believe was the case with medieval medicine — those guys were all about Galen, anyway, weren’t they?
Anyway, Johanna wins the Pope’s favour, but meanwhile the emperor is marching on Rome with Gerold in tow. Gerold hasn’t aged a day, but by this point Johanna is about 30, so he’s got to be in his 50s, surely? The Emperor menaces the Pope but Johanna saves the day with trickery, which for plot reasons tips Gerold off about what’s up. Gerold and Johanna are reunited, while the Emperor and Johanna’s enemies scheme against the pope. Gerold pleads to Johanna to come live with him and be his love, but she’s reluctant to be a wife having learned how independent she can be as a man. Gerold understands but says he’s gonna stick by her because of the danger.
Anyway, the baddies assassinate John Goodman, but instead of the baddie candidate being elected, Johanna gets elected and we get some Papal pageantry. Gerold sticks around as head of the guards while Johanna gets on with, y’know, piety, humility and good works. The more of this I watch, the more it seems to me that David Wenham is doing an Iain Glen impression. Anyway, Johanna gets knocked up and they debate whether to flee Rome, but Johanna pleads for more time so she can do more pious, humble good works and advocate for the education of women.
But no: the baddies lay a trap for David Wenham and kill him; Johanna collapses at the exact same moment. She later dies in childbirth and Anastasius takes the throne. He writes a chronicle of the popes, which leaves her out — but then a sneaky bishop reinserts it. And who is this sneaky bishop, who is also our narrator? Why it’s Bishop Arnaldo, who is actually Arnalda, the little girl Johanna mentored back during her pastoral idyll. She speculates that the two of them can’t be the only women in disguise in the church. And that’s that.
This film is actually pretty interesting in some ways, but hoo boy it could stand to be about 30 minutes shorter and to treat everything with less … sombre reverence. You know how some people call boring historical films “history lessons?” Well, I love history lessons. History lessons are my thing. But this movie bored me to tears. Looks nice, though.