A Film About A Legend... And A Legend In Its Making
Michael Anderson’s film She…who would be Pope opens in a flower-power setting in the American Midwest. Liv Ullmann, in a powerful performance, portrays a modern, evangelical preacher whose life parallels that of the past Pope as well as the title role of Pope Joan for the 9th Century elements. The movie flashes from and to this modern setting to draw strongly on certain parallels within aligned stories. The daughter of a travelling shouter (Jeremy Kemp), she identifies herself with the mythical Pope and compares similarities in their lives. Psychiatrist Dr. Stevens (Keir Dullea) tries with his colleague Dr. Corwin (Robert Beatty) to send her back through her past lives to establish if she truly is the reincarnation of Pope Joan.
The film takes us back to the 9th Century - a young Joan is the daughter of an itinerant preacher (again, Jeremy Kemp) whose followers include monks of questionable religious calling. She attracts immediate attention and payment from the gullible crowds. When her father collapses, Joan must carry on. The shady monks, realising their source of income might have also died, force her to lead them by raping her. She takes sanctuary in a nunnery, befriending Mother Superior (Olivia de Havilland) and a visiting artist monk, Adrian (Maximilian Schell).
The nunnery is visited by the Emperor and his two sons, Louis and Lothar. At the banquet, Louis (Franco Nero) is attracted to Joan but her virtue and modesty prevent her from returning her true feelings. The soldiers take their pleasure with the young nuns: Louis turns to Cecilia (Lesley Anne Down) while Joan is left on her own.
Her sexuality aroused, Joan becomes Brother Adrian’s mistress and enjoys the first happiness in her life. The sojourn is brief. The nunnery is attacked by Saxon warriors who murder everyone violently. Joan and Adrian escape and she decides to cut her hair short and assumes the disguise of a young friar.
Meanwhile the Empire is in upheaval with the death of Emperor Luis (Andre Morell). His heirs start a bloody war of succession. Wanting to escape, Joan and Adrian take refuge at a monastery in Greece. Here, Joan, still as a man, can devote herself totally to God. Pope Leo (Trevor Howard) learns of her virtue and saintliness: surrounded by devious Cardinals, he needs someone he can trust. And so Joan (as Brother John) is confirmed as his secretary, then anointed as Cardinal and eventually named as his successor.
Louis protests at this appointment....not realising this is the young nun to whom he was so attracted! He storms into the Vatican but - on finding the young Pope - sees through her disguise and becomes her lover. He leaves the Vatican with the Pope’s promise that, upon victory over his brother, he will be crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
On witnessing the drama unfold, Brother Adrian thinks now might be the time for Joan to reveal her true identity or leave Rome. But it is too late….the Pope is pregnant with Louis’ child. The final drama unfolds, creating double impact as the same twist of fate is mirrored in our modern day setting.