Rating: 1.5 out of 5
There are certainly a number of movies that wouldn’t make the Vatican’s recommended Netflix list but I would imagine none would cause a greater uproar than Pope Joan - a medieval chronicle of the only female pontiff in history. Or so the film and its adapted source material (Donna Woolfolk Cross’ eponymously titled book) claim.
Joan (Johanna Wokalek) was born in 9th Century Germany to a strict dogmatic father and to an age where misogyny was practically doctrine. Despite Joan’s prodigious nature, her insight and curiosity was seen as unnatural. It isn’t God’s Will that women can be so smart - according to the logic of the uncouth fundamentalists that make up most of the characters in the film.
Tired of having her intellect and innate wisdom oppressed by everyone around her, save for a few learned liberals apparently, Joan went ahead and pretended to be a man in order to study in a monastery. It was there where she flourished and before eventually rising to prominence in Rome.
Again and again this film depicts how women were inferior in the Dark Ages. Well yeah, no kidding. Pope Joan lays it on so repetitively thick that I can imagine even the most hardened feminist going, “Okay, I get it already!” Subtlety isn’t Pope Joan’s strong suit it seems and its motif is shoved in your face and sledge hammered into your skull as crudely as its villains try to reason that Joan is “unnatural.”
Of course if you didn’t happen to get it, then don’t worry, there’s a narrator to spell it out for you at every turn. “Yet Johanna was constantly aware of the danger she faced every day,” interjects Captain Duh for no apparent reason. In case you didn’t recall, pretending to be a man in a monastery is kind of tricky. Thanks, narrator!
In fact, this film’s dialogue comes across so clunky and perfunctory that the banter in your average Aesop’s Fable would seem like flowery Shakespearian literature in comparison. We might as well have had the narrator sit in front of us and tell us the tale like a bedtime story.
John Goodman hamming it up as the cuddly Pope Sergius is a hilarious distraction in an otherwise overly serious film. Well in fairness, Pope Joan also offers cartoonish villains, an extremely disturbing oedipal romantic subplot and a few unintentionally funny deus ex machina moments (including random pillaging Norsemen saving Joan from a forced marriage) that has to be seen to be believed.
The truth about whether there really was a female Pope is contentious revisionist history, but its controversy notwithstanding, the only thing I can really judge isn’t the factual merit of the narrative’s account, but rather its quality as a film. In that respect, Pope Joan is a middling heavy-handed mess that isn’t really worth the clamour.
About Hidzir Junaini
Hidzir Junaini, is 23-years-old and a wealthy playboy billionaire by day and a caped crusader by night. Only one of those is true. He’s actually a freelance writer, blogger, full-time film buff and some-time socially awkward nerd. He also writes about music, restaurants and nightlife for MetroWize Asia.
Hidzir was the winner of the inaugural inSing Movie Lover contest that garnered over 1,000 participants. The Movie Lover contest is a search for a candidate who possesses outstanding passion for movies and a talent for writing engaging movie reviews.