Potential art-house hit Pope Joan, from local author Donna Woolfolk Cross, is not playing at a theater near you
You know it’s Easter weekend when ABC-TV drags out the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille blockbuster The Ten Commandments for another rebroadcast, this year on Saturday, April 23, 7 to 11:45 p.m., on local ABC affiliate WSYR-Channel 9. The network first aired the gimme-that-oldtime-religion favorite way back in 1973 and has repeated it nearly every year since (there was a short layoff in the late 1970s when then-teensy pay cabler HBO ran it around Christmastime), and veteran watchers know that the still-cool Red Sea stuff happens near the 11 p.m. mark.
Alas, it seems unlikely that Pope Joan (Constantin Films; 140 minutes; unrated; widescreen; 2009), the movie adaptation of local author Donna Woolfolk Cross’ best-sell ing
1997 400-page novel, will ever see such reverent treatment by a television network, unless it pops up on Oprah Winfrey’s cable channel. In fact, it seems unlikely that Pope Joan will ever play at the neighborhood mul tiplex, even though it’s an English language, flesh-and-blood epic with a DeMille-ish flavor that has already racked up box-office millions in Europe—yet mysteriously can’t find a stateside distributor.
At least Cross could take comfort during two sellout houses at Eastwood’s Palace Theatre on April 2 and 3, both fundraisers for Fayetteville’s Matilda Joslyn Gage House. The opening night was a gala champagneand-chitchat event with a red carpet that went from the James Street curb all the way into the Palace’s foyer, while the next day’s matinee had nearby parking lots crammed with cars on what would normally have been a quiet Sunday afternoon. Business was brisk for the Pope Joan-branded merchandise on sale in the lobby (they ran out of the audiobook version), and Cross was at both shows to reveal the behind-the-scenes misadventures and patiently autograph her many fans’ tomes.
The quasi-biopic concerning the rumored rise of the world’s first female pontiff begins in ninth-century Ingleheim, Germany, when young Johanna (played by Lotte Flack, who accompanied Cross to opening night’s ceremony) shows that she’s a smart, inquisitive whippersnapper. During the Dark Ages, unfortunately, those traits personify evil in the eyes of her dad, the old-school village priest (Iain Glen, from the Resident Evil franchise). He attempts to literally beat those qualities out of his teen daughter, qualities she inherited from her Saxon mom Gudrun (Jordis Triebel). (During the first scene, the priest refuses to assist Gudrun as she experiences a difficult childbirth, claiming with disgust, “That’s women’s work: lowly and unclean.”) Johanna eventually decides to leave the family nest and hightails it with her brother Johannes (Jan-Hendrik Kiefer) to a cathedral school managed by Bishop Fulgentius (Oliver Nagele), and takes housing with the studly knight Gerold (David Wenham) and his family.
When a viking raid wipes out the bishop’s village, Johanna (now played as an adult by Johanna Wokalek) straps down her bosoms, trims her locks into a Moe Howard ’do and impersonates her now-dead brother, killed in the carnage along with Gerold’s family. (The knight, who is smitten with Johanna, left to fight the warring Norsemen elsewhere.) Johanna’s deception will lead her to Rome, where she becomes a trusted physician to the goutridden Pope Sergius (John Goodman, before his recent Drew Carey-esque weight loss), as well as an against-all-odds reunion with Gerold. Her rekindled relationship with the brooding knight, plus political chicanery within the Vatican walls, will ultimately seal Johanna’s fate, even as her legend continues to flourish centuries later in the annals of herstory.
DeMille resorted to “the good book” for rationalizing the heavy doses of sex and violence that cropped up in his 1930s religious epics such as Sign of the Cross. Taking a similar thematic cue, director Sonke Wortmann employs Cross’ fine novel as a realistic backdrop (one sequence at a village bazaar is brimming with unpleasant images like flies buzzing around food stands) while also resorting to basic movie devices such as a romantic skinnydipping interlude and bursts of jarring violence that had some matinee ladies of a certain age peeking between their fingers. During the best wedding-interrupted moment since The Graduate, for instance, the bishop gets his head lopped off by an ax-wielding Norseman.
The director does allow for some suspenseful moments. When the Vatican sharks attempt to derail Johanna’s credentials as a physician with a bogus test involving Sergius’ urine, Johanna samples the planted papal pee and declares, “Congratulations: Our heavenly father will give birth to a child.” The scene earns a big laugh from the audience, while ironically foreshadowing the movie’s climax.
Also at the end comes a clever twist, reminiscent of The Road Warrior, in which the film’s narrator is revealed.
Wortmann also relies on time-tested casting calls as a cinematic shorthand so viewers can quickly grasp who are the bad guys, a requisite touch in a lengthy movie that spans many years and supporting characters. These roles aren’t caricatures, however, although you know how they will turn out as soon as they’re introduced. Claudia Michelsen as Gerold’s wife Richilde is a shrewish meddler, while jug-eared Mark Bischoff as Odo, a cathedral school teacher, is to be instantly mistrusted, and Anatole Taubman is expertly sinister as the overly ambitious Anastasius, who will go to murderous lengths to become the next pope.
The leading roles are filled by capable actors who have to do plenty of heavy lifting. As the eventual Pope Joan, Johanna Wokalek doesn’t quite submerge her physical femininity (for sure, this alleged dude looks like a lady) yet she always conveys the apprehensive terror of a person on the verge of being discovered for her gender-switching crime. David Wenham is appropriately dashing as Gerold, a part that requires looking good in knights’ togs while straddling a steed. And John Goodman, bringing along a British accent to this Roman holiday, plays his Pope Sergius with an amusing Charles Laughton-esque brio.
The movie itself is certainly lavish and well-appointed, with location work that included visits to Germany and Morocco, thus offering easy-on-the-eyes catnip for the art-house crowd. Which, of course, leads to the bigger question regarding why this movie hasn’t been picked up for domestic distribution. Although Summit Entertainment, which is handling international sales, has its logo on the end credits, the distributor seems more interested in releasing sequels of the teen vampire tentpole Twilight instead. So why hasn’t another major player such as Sony Pictures Classics stepped up to the plate?
Cross didn’t have the solution during the post-screening question-answer session, although she did allow that some studio execs believed the subject matter would not interest American moviegoers and that “the Vatican has maintained a deep silence” regarding the Pope Joan feature. Still, the author knows about one ready-made audience demographic: “I have signed many copies of this book to nuns all over the world,” Cross said with a knowing smile.
I’ve got a secret: Johanna Wokalek as Pope Joan.
Author! Author!: Donna Woolfolk Cross takes questions during the recent Palace Theatre screening of Pope Joan.