Story of 'Pope Joan' is a lesson in faith

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Of all the projects that have languished in Germany's development hell — among them "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" and the just-revived "The Physician" — "Pope Joan" truly seemed cursed.

The adaptation of Donna Cross' best-seller, about a female pope masquerading as a man, was optioned by Fine Line shortly after the book's publication in 1997, only to be abandoned when English-language sales didn't fulfill expectations. In Germany, Italy and Spain, however, the book sold like hotcakes — becoming one of Germany's top 10 sellers of all time.

It quickly was snapped up by UFA Film, but when the Neuer Markt exchange collapsed, a new player entered the scene: Germany's Constantin Film.

"It started with us finding out that the project had stalled," said producer Martin Moszkowicz, who added that Constantin contacted the publisher just before the rights were to revert back. "So we came to an agreement to do it together (with UFA), with us taking the lead."

But other problems soon arose. Pretty much all of Hollywood and London was canvassed for a suitable (read: big name) actress for the lead, to no effect. Director Volker Schlondorff pushed for Franka Potente ("Run, Lola, Run"), but before the shoot could start, he was fired. His comments about so-called amphibious films — those that are shot as a miniseries and then assembled into a theatrical feature, as "Joan" was to be — proved the last straw for Constantin, which gave him the ax.

The company then rebooted "Joan" with a new director — comedy specialist Sonke Wortmann — and anointed a new lead: Johanna Wokalek ("Der Baader Meinhof Komplex").

Moszkowicz said that neither the budget nor the epic scale was affected by the change-ups, but the operative word during a recent visit to the set seemed to be "affordable." The crew stressed that locations were not built for the film but "adapted" from existing castles and buildings. The bottom line seemed to be on everybody's mind.

But if there's such a thing as an affordable epic, "Joan" certainly fits the bill: Set in the drab ninth century, it actually demands austerity — even the scenes in Rome (shot in Morocco) depict an empire in decline.

Not that this fazes Moszkowicz. "The film is certainly immense in size, probably the biggest German production we have this year," he said, admitting, though, that "Joan" does not need to top "Gladiator" in size or boxoffice receipts.

In the end, it's something of a miracle that the film managed to overcome its many hurdles — with Bavarian film funding falling out and actor John Goodman being sued by the producers for walking off the project (he's back, presumably with a pay bump on top of his reported $500,000 fee).

"This was certainly one of the more difficult films we've done," Moszkowicz said. "But I was always convinced we would make 'Joan.' We just needed the best constellation of director, star and script."

And barring a blessing by the current pope, a little luck. (partialdiff)
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