October 26, 2009

The crucible of the moment........Pope Joan.....what a story.....

The story of Pope Joan:

"For 1,200 years her existence has been denied. She is the legend that will not die--the woman who disguised herself as a man and sat for two years on the papal throne.

In this stirring international bestseller, Donna Woolfolk Cross brings the Dark Ages to life in all their brutal splendor, and shares the dramatic story of a woman whose courage makes her a heroine for every age. "

Thats what it says about the bestseller by Donna Woolfolk Cross. Sounds pretty cool, right? Content that would immediately lure me into the next bookstore, money in hand. Too bad I had never heard of this book, nor about the legend the novel is based upon.

The visceral reaction to the announcement of an upcoming film, directed by German filmmaker Sonke Worthmann, was one of incredulity. Let me say, I am biased in most cases against German films, since most (and I stress "most", not all) of them are heavy and humorless.

According to the wiki page, to sum it up briefly, it seems unlikely that a female ever occupied the papal chair, as no definitive proof exists, plus the fact, that if there were any positive proof, anti-catholic and feminist movements would have spoken up loudly. A bit like the Dan Brown conspiracy of Da Vinci Code fame. So, you can believe it or not.

An interesting nota bene: the title in German is the "Pope-ess", which of course, is not a term used in the English language. However, in German, "Die Paepstin", is a proper word, often used when describing a woman who has attained high status in a secular position. In Italian, the pope is called "il papa" , the a ending normally ascribed to the female gender. the "Il" indicating a male. The respective titles of the film in Italian (La Papessa) and Spanish (La Papisa) are, translated, the Pope-ess. This curiousity leads me to believe there could be some truth to the "legend", since the origin of many words have historical context.

Nevertheless, definitely, material for a thriller whilst an opportunity to portray what it really meant being a female with a brain in the 9th century. We all know, that well into the 17th and 18th century, formal schooling was reserved exclusively for boys. Boys of the nobility and gentry. With this premise in mind, this particular tale is all the more astounding.

Johanna Anglicus, our heroine, is an extremely gifted girl who suffers first hand the superstitious nonsense propagated and preached against anything female, leaving them little more than subservient and beholden to the whims of the male dominated society. The gate to the world of anything worth knowing was locked, only the re-birth as a boy giving you the key. Johanna doesn't wait for divine intervention.

Johanna thirsts for knowledge and secretly learns by listening to lessons her father, the village priest, gives her two brothers. Although apparently learned, he reveals himself to be a complete misogynist, doling out severe punishment he thinks appropriate for such behavior. Bring out the whip.

The story tries in vain to immerse us in what it was like to be a woman during that time. Religion and law almost identical, both thoroughly infused in society. Learning anything academic thought to be against the scriptures, the teachings of God. And there were very few exceptional males in higher positions willing to give a girl a chance. Johanna encountered a few mentors. But she soon realized it was better to just switch genders.

So, here the chronicles of how to completely flatline a pretty interesting story:

Take a ruler: start with her birth and draw a straight horizontal line to his death/her death. And adhere religiously to "The complete guide of filmmaking by completely untalented directors and writers":

Always begin with a wide shot, then go in for a medium wide shot, then a medium close up, then a close up. Repeat for all scenes. Bad guys should be immediately recognizable by big ears and beady eyes. Good guys equally so, with white fluffy hair and a beard. To further enhance a villain, give them bad wigs. Don't forget to include angelic rays of sunshine, highlighted through the fog maker machine when giving your horse a drink in a gurling stream in the woods. In short, stick to all cliches and stereotypes. Finish the job with a flourish, use only stilted god-awful dialogue.

There is a consistent anti-cinematic streak, a genuine commitment to drain this story of all its blood.

Yep, the makers of this film deserves an award from the academy of epigones or I can burn a rich tapestry of a story into an egregious piece of dull crap.

Nothing more than a lavish documentary. A long documentary. At more than 2 and a half hours, I was sorely tempted to walk out. But I figured I stuck it out this long, maybe he/she will be found out. And was moderately curious to know if the writer and director would deliver us from the eternal boredom we were doomed to throughout this lugubrious tale.

Alas, no, the end was consistent with the entire tale. I am appalled how awful this film was. Insulted really.

Meticulous and almost clinical in the depiction of life for poor and rich alike in the 9th century, the horrendous squalor and prejudice against the extraordinary soon lost its shock effect. For me, this patient was pretty much DOA.

Was it a true story? Based on a true story? What was it? I had no clue before I researched a bit for this review. A neat little device called an written intro would have gone a long way in building up a bit of tension and suspense. Instead they opted for an narrating voice to bridge various gaps. Again, the gaps of suspense were not bridge-able because there was no suspense.

One highlight was John Goodman's performance as our heroine's predecessor, the duration of that slight flicker in the otherwise steady line, lasting about 15 minutes.

However much the Da Vinci Code was trashed and smashed by critics, it was a masterpiece compared to this corpse of a picture.

Pope Joan's white powdered face a visual symbol to the blood drained from the veins of what could have been. The realistic displays of life, death, poverty, illness, diseases and various battles and decapitations, were documented fairly well. I wanted more. From such a story, such a legend, you'd expect passion, intrigue, twists, mysticism, blood, guts, drama, lust. Not talking hyperbole here, but come on, there was so much they could have done.

It seems this latest undertaking didn't learn a whole lot from the 1972 cinematic effort, staring Liv Ullman. I got this comment off imdb. And well, it pretty much hits the nail right on the head:

"Based on a supposedly true story of an Englishwoman who became pope for a short time and was lynched by a crowd.........., this film could have been done much better, since the story on which it is based - true or not - is little more than a footnote in history................
Because this film was such a disaster, I do not see any film maker daring to touch this subject again. So we can therefore regard this film as an opportunity well and truly wasted."

If you are interested in a documentary, and have two hours and a half hours to spare, and need a nap, go see "Pope Joan". Film is on release in Germany and Austria. Limited release in the States 2010. Bet you can't wait.

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