“Pope Joan”: She was always going to die anyway


I’m often underwhelmed when I read that a movie will be made about a historical female figure. Period movies about strong women who challenge the male hierarchy only to be demonized by contemporaries and historians (and sometimes real demons) are a genre unto themselves: Insert tragic historical female, grant her enough authority to hang herself, end with creative torture by the powers that be. It’s not that I mind tragedies, it’s that I’ve seen that movie a hundred times, just with different dresses. (Unless it’s Cate Blanchett in The Golden Age. But then, Elizabeth I would not be subjugated by any man.)

Just last year, we had Marie Antoinette. Kirsten Dunst‘s version of the teenage bride is the definition of used and abused.

The Messenger (1999) gave us Joan of Arc. A girl with holy visions and military skills? Burn her at the stake. Not even Milla Jovovich‘s armor could save her.

In a movie of her own, Magdalene (1989), Mary Magdalene is caught in a power struggle between powerful men. (This I used to watch again and again. Big teenage crush on Nastassja Kinski.)

A classic is Cleopatra (1963). She knows how to use her femininity for conquest of men and nations, but still ends up in a tomb. (And wow. I always forget how striking Elizabeth Taylor was.)

And finally, Alien 3 (1993). Hang on. Ripley wasn’t real — that was just my biggest cinematic disappointment ever.

With this in mind, I can’t say I’m completely heartbroken over reported delays for the big screen adaptation of Donna Cross‘s novel Pope Joan. Yes, that’s Pope as in Rome. Cross’s novel deals with the legend of the female Pope, a seventh century AD woman whose story may or may not have been a fictional anti-papal satire (but is cool nonetheless). Joan dressed as a man and studied what she pleased, teaching master scholars of the day and becoming so revered that she was universally voted successor to Pope Leo IV.

Here’s the twist. While riding her horse, Joan unexpectedly gives birth to a child. (Oops, I hate it when that happens.) In all accounts she’s punished with death, though it’s unclear whether it was for the sinister crime of motherhood or the viler sin of passing as a man. In some legends she sits silently at the birth place for a couple of years (as anyone would, I’m sure), then dies. Another account has her tied to her horse’s tail, dragged through the streets, stoned to death, and buried on that spot.

Woo. I can’t wait for this one.

If the movie doesn’t fly, you can still check out a ’70s version starring Liv Ullmann. I’m pretty sure there’s past life regression involved, though, so proceed at your own risk.