Great Pretender

Feldmann_468wSally Feldman on Pope Joan, in Eurozine:

Lust, violence, feuds, corruption, intrigue and romance – all the ingredients of any respectable blockbuster jostle for attention in a new film portraying the rags-to-riches story of a destitute young woman who rises to the very highest echelons of power and glory. But this heroine is no ordinary tycoon or gold-digger. She's the Pope.

Die Päpstin tells the story of a young woman from a poor clerical family who disguises herself as a man, pursues her studies in a monastery and ends up in Rome where she's finally elected Pope. Only when she gives birth in the street while in a procession in full papal regalia is her true identity revealed.

So far, the film has only been shown in Germany, where it was made, and in Italy where this summer it reached the top ten, just behind Robin Hood and Sex and the City 2. Frankly, it can't really compete with either of those, for despite its sensational subject matter it's teutonically ponderous and compulsively chronological, peopled by ciphers with no real character – not even leavened by the unlikely appearance of John Goodman as a slightly Friar Tuck-like Pope Sergius. Joan herself is played by the German actor Johanna Wokalek, who manages to confine her facial expressions to just one, applied consistently throughout, conveying, as Dorothy Parker once put it, “the gamut of emotions from A to B”. As for the crowd scenes, they mostly consist of a ragged band of wretched peasants straight out of Monty Python. But despite its feebleness, the film has already been dismissed by L'Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian Bishops' Conference, as “a hoax” and a film of “extremely limited vision”.

And that's not too surprising, really. After all, just this summer, the Vatican has pronounced that to allow women to become priests would be as sinful as child abuse. Anyone attempting their ordination will risk immediate excommunication. This new definition of the crime, part of a more general revision of serious offences against church law, including sexual abuse of children by priests, came days after the Church of England's General Synod voted in favour of legislation to consecrate women bishops.

So if the Vatican won't tolerate the notion of women priests, let alone bishops, no wonder it's touchy about any suggestion that there could ever have been a woman Pope.