Pope Joan

1972, Movie, PG, 132 mins

Review

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Made in England and Romania by several production companies, this picture was picked up by Columbia for distribution but received such scathing notices and did such little business in its few venues that it mercifully sank from sight. A long-existing rumor maintains that a woman held the papal throne between the reigns of Leo IV and Benedict III. This has been refuted by most scholars, but since a definite gap exists in the years between those two men, this legend has sprung up and has been the topic of more than one fictional story, including "Top Girls," a British stage play in the 1980s. Ullmann, a small-time Aimee Semple McPherson, takes the stump in little Midwest villages to decry the moral degradation of modern-day humanity. She is the daughter of Kemp, also a traveling shouter a la Billy Sunday (or Graham, depending on how old you are). She has taken to identifying herself with the mythical Pope Joan, noting the similarities in their lives, and visits psychiatrist Dullea. He brings in Beatty and the two men listen to Ullmann as she tries to find out if she is the reincarnation of Pope Joan. The film cuts back and forth 1000 years showing Ullmann being raped by three monks who were friends of her dad; finding a haven in a nunnery run by de Havilland; getting hit on by Nero, the prince grandson of Charlemagne; watching her friend, Down, a nun, allow herself to be the object of Nero's sexuality; and more. Ullmann becomes the mistress of Schell, a monk artist. Violence occurs when Charlemagne dies. Saxons pillage the villages and rape the women, including many of the nuns. Down and de Havilland are cruelly murdered, but Ullmann flees by cutting her hair short and masquerading as a man. She goes to Greece with Schell and preaches the Gospel so passionately that she's noticed by Howard (Leo IV), who appoints her his secretary, never knowing that she is a woman. Howard makes Ullmann a cardinal, then names her his successor (this was before elections and the puffs of smoke after the ballots). Nero is now the emperor-to-be and protests Ullmann's appointment (not knowing it's the same woman he tried to seduce earlier). He sees through her new hairdo, makes love to her, and leaves with the promise that she'll crown him. Schell thinks she'd better come clean and depart, but she won't hear of that. When Nero returns, the pope is pregnant but wrapping herself tightly to conceal the fact. She walks down the steps of the Lateran Palace to give Nero her blessing but falls because of the pain of having been strapped so tightly. The straps are ripped away, and the assembled people are astonished at what they see. They turn surly at having been duped, race for the steps, and trample Ullmann to death. The film cuts back to modern time, where Ullmann, the 1970s preacher, is also trying to hide a pregnancy and dies in Dullea's arms. This boring trash, in bad taste, has miserable acting from an international cast and lackluster direction. It will appeal only to ardent feminists who might like to believe that Mother Church was once overseen by an expectant mother, not a father. leave a comment

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