Sight & Sound, July 2011
Originally released in 1972, Pope Joan (dir. Michael Anderson, screenplay John Briley) starred Liv Ullmann as the legendary woman who supposedly headed the Roman Catholic Church for two years in the 850s. Co-starring Franco Nero and Maximilian Schell as Joan's love interest, and featuring cameos from Olivia de Havilland and a scene-stealing Trevor Howard, it was a typically well-made historical biopic, albeit one whose 'bio' was based on conjecture. . . .
The film met with harsh criticism. Veering between snooty indifference and acerbic vitriol, the reviews combined a sense of costume-drama fatigue with plain dislike of the film's conventional treatment of sensational events. Although Pope Joan openly depicted monks with concubines, nuns attracting lovers and a pontiff going into labour, the film countered its sensational elements with an emphasis on historical context - which somehow affronted those seeking outrage. A press release stating that the script was acceptable to Vatican officials did little to appease the naysayers. The film subsequently suffered hacking at the hands of its distributor, who cut it from 132 minutes down to 111 and, in the US, changed the title to The Devil's Imposter.
The excised footage consisted mainly of a modern story that Briley had written to run alongside the historical drama. In this contemporary tale, Liv Ullmann plays a naive 1970s evangelist, caught in a tawdry love triangle and starting to believe she is a reincarnation of Pope Joan. entire sequences were filmed in 1971 with Keir Dullea and Robert Beatty as psychiatrists trying to diagnose Ullmann's delusional preacher but, outside the 1972 press screenings, they have remained unseen - until 2009, when Briley, Anderson and producer Kurt Unger decided to reinsert them to create a new cut of the film under the title She... Who Would Be Pope.
The final edit is an unexpected take on religious sanctity and human sexuality. Running at 111 minutes - the same length as the release print of Pope Joan - the new version blends, replaces and reframes the original footage. Gone are extended scenes of Joan's approbation as Pope, in favour of a cynical glance at flower-power licentiousness.
The Vatican has long denied Pope Joan's existence but, through the cynical looking glass of 1970s counterculture, this new version increases the potency of the legend, showing how it resonates with attitudes towards sex and religion.
There is also a recent feature film version of the story of Pope Joan, based on the Donna Woolfolk Cross international bestseller, which is directed by Sönke Wortmann and stars Johanna Wokalek, David Wenham and John Goodman. It premiered at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival.