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Movie Review: Pope Joan – Medieval Legend Comes to Life Onscreen

Film: Johanna Wokalek as Pope Joan

Film: Johanna Wokalek as Pope Joan

This week has seen the pendulum swing back once again into good movie territory. I was aching to see something decent, not cheesy, and not spoiled by Hollywood. Enter Netflix, enter Pope Joan. Released in 2009, also under its German title, Die Päpstin, it recounts the medieval legend of Johanna von Ingleheim, a woman who disguised herself as a man, lived as a monk, and eventually went on to become pope in the ninth century.

The Story
Christmas Day 814. A narrator tells us that it is the last day of Charlemagne’s life and the first day of Joan’s. Born in Germany to a Pagan mother, played by German actress, Jördis Triebel, and English priest, played by none other than Game of Thrones’s Ser Jorah Mormont, Iain Glen, Joan and her two older brothers live a horrible life of abuse under their zealous father. He terrorises the children and his wife, and does everything in his power to ensure Joan doesn’t learn, because a woman learning is considered blasphemy and “unnatural”.

Joan is a curious child and rebels against her father’s constraints by watching her brothers take Latin lessons and memorising them. She asks her eldest brother, Matthew, played by Sandro Lohmann, to teach her in secret. He is afraid of incurring their father’s wrath but relents when he sees Joan has a natural ability with languages. Joan quickly picks up Latin, and is much better at it than her brothers; especially poor Joahnnes, played by William Stütz, who struggles to read. Their father wants to send Matthew to the schola to become a priest but he falls sick and dies, leaving Johannes, who is completely inept with Latin, with this burden. Meanwhile, poor Joan, who would love to be afforded the same opportunities as her brothers, must learn in secret and avoid being discovered.

Lotte Flack portraying young Joan in Pope Joan. (Magnolia Pictures)

Lotte Flack portraying young Joan in Pope Joan. (Magnolia Pictures)

When a teacher comes from the schola to test Johannes, it’s clear he is not fit for schooling. Joan sees her opportunity and pounces on it, risking her father’s anger by coming forward. She stuns the teacher with her remarkable ability to read and understand scripture. Aesculapius, played by theatre heavy-weight, Edward Petherbridge, sees Joan has a gift and is unwilling to waste it even if she is a girl. He teaches Joan Latin and Greek and forges a close fatherly relationship with her, an escape from the horrific treatment she endures from her father.

When a messenger is sent to retrieve Joan for the schola, her father pretends there is a mistake in the spelling of their names, and sends Johannes in her place. Joan escapes in the night and joins her brother on the road where they both end up attending the schola, where she excels in her studies.

While there, she is taken in by Count Gerold, played by Faramir, son of Denethor!…oops, I mean David Wenham. Wenham plays the role of Joan’s protector and, later, lover. After a gruesome Viking attack, while Gerold is away, leaving his family and Johannes dead, Joan travels to the monastery of Fulda, where her brother was to take his place as a monk. She presents herself as Johannes Anglicus (although she is German, her father was an English priest) and happily makes a life there earning the respect and reverence of the brothers.

Joan as a monk in Fulda Monastery. (PopeJoantheBook.wordpress.com)

Joan as a monk in Fulda Monastery. (PopeJoantheBook.wordpress.com)

Unfortunately, her happiness is short lived when she falls ill and is forced to flee Fulda or be discovered as a woman. She is rescued by Arn, and his wife. Years earlier, Joan saved Arn’s mother from being branded a leper and saved his entire family. Arn repays Joan by helping her recover before she heads off to Rome.

Joan arrives in Rome and heals the ailing Pope Bergius II of gout, played bizarrely enough by John Goodman (Yes, Dan from Roseanne!). This doesn’t sit well with the Pope’s ambitious and grasping Nomenclator, Anastasius Bibliothecarus, played by Swiss actor, Anatole Taubman (The Pillars of the Earth, Quantum Of Solace). In spite of his scheming Joan quickly becomes Sergius’s trusted advisor and medicus. Once again, happy to be living her life as a man, a wrench is thrown in her plans, when Gerold shows up at the Head of Lothair’s army. Lothair I (795-855), son of Louis the Pious (778-840), marched on Rome with his army. With Joan’s aid, Sergius placates Lothair but Gerold recognises Joan and they resume their affair. Just as Joan is about to leave with Gerold and become his wife, Sergius II dies and Joan is voted in as Pope with tragic consequences.

John Goodman as Pope Sergius II in Pope Joan. (www.acesshowbiz.com)

John Goodman as Pope Sergius II in Pope Joan. (www.acesshowbiz.com)

The Verdict
The movie is good. The child actors portraying Joan and her brothers gave strong performances and were captivating onscreen. A good chunk of the movie is spent on the early part of Joan’s life, so they take up quite a bit of screen time, but their performances are solid.

Notable mentions: Iain Glen’s portrayal of Joan’s abusive father was brutal. It’s almost too much to watch, and you’re praying for Joan to be free of him. Glen plays the role of a mean, country bumpkin priest with anger issues to the hilt.

Another familiar face, David Wenham, who is at home in armour and leather, revises a Faramir-like role, but doesn’t disappoint. The only thing that struck me as odd is how he was Joan’s guardian after she came to him at such a young age (10) then becomes her lover, yet he doesn’t seem more than a few years older than her in the movie. I think an older actor might have been more appropriate for the role in that sense, but then again, I think they might have been trying to downplay the creep-factor. I have to say it….it’s a Woody Allen situation here. She’s raised by him, alongside his daughters, and then he takes her as a lover? It made me cringe…A LOT.

Joan (Johanna Wokalek) and her lover, Count Gerold (David Wenham). in Pope Joan. (200 Movies1Woman.com)

Joan (Johanna Wokalek) and her lover, Count Gerold (David Wenham). in Pope Joan. (200 Movies1Woman.com)

The choice of John Goodman struck me as utterly bizarre. He wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t believeable for me as Pope Bergius II. I think he did the best he could but it really wasn’t a role for him; it was a stretch, and he hit it here and there, but for me, it was a miss. I say that with hesitation because I like Goodman, but I just found him being here an odd casting choice and a poor fit.

Last, but certainly not least, lead Johanna Wokalek as Joan was absolutely brilliant. Originally, Franka Potente, of Run, Lola, Run fame was supposed to play the role of Joan but Wokalek stepped in, and turned out to be perfect for it. She has a presence onscreen that is mesmerising. She fully commits to the role and in spite of the unusual circumstances, you believe she is pulling it off just like everyone around her. I honestly can’t find fault with her performance.

There were many other strong performances throughout the film, and if anything, the story itself is fascinating. Up until the sixteenth century, the story of Joan was believed to be fact. Even though scholars now agree that this tale is a legend, it’s still a very curious one to put on the big screen. When it was released, it caused an uproar in the Vatican over the revival of interest in the Pope Joan story. The movie is based on the best selling book, Pope Joan, by Donna Wolfolk Cross. Lastly, there is a great little twist at the end of the film that adds a nice touch. If you’re looking for a way to pass the night, I can happily recommend this film as time well wasted. Until next week’s medieval movie night, happy watching!

~Sandra Alvarez

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