Liv Ullman portrays a female pope -- based on a long-held rumor that the papacy was held by a woman between the reigns of Leo IV and Benedict III -- in this rambling saga directed by Michael Anderson. The British version of the film has been cut, not only removing twenty-one minutes of the film but also an entire contemporary framing story. In the full version, a modern-day woman evangelist, played by Ullman, who feels an affinity to the legendary Pope Joan, pays a visit to her psychiatrist (Keir Dullea). Searching through her past lives to see whether she is the reincarnation of Pope Joan, the film then flashbacks 1000 years to pick up Joan (Ullman in an earlier incarnation of her character) undergoing a succession of trials and tribulations. Joan then meets up with and becomes the mistress of Adrian (Maximilian Schell), a monk with an artistic bent. After the death of Charlemagne when roving bands of Saxons are raping women and ransacking the countryside, Joan flees the country by cutting her hair short and dressing like a man. Together Joan and Adrian escape to Greece. In Greece, Joan's street-corner preaching draws the attention of Pope Leo IV (Trevor Howard), who is impressed by her impassioned rendering of the Gospel. Still disguised as a man, Pope Leo, clueless as to her true sex, hires her as his secretary. From there, she rises up the ladder of the Roman Catholic Church, becoming a cardinal and then Pope Leo's successor. But then she becomes pregnant by a lover from her past (Franco Nero) and Joan must hide her delicate condition from the papal authorities and the rowdy masses.
by Paul Brenner synopsis