Dangerous Beauty (1998)



Director:     Marshall Herskovitz

Starring:     Catherine McCormack (Veronica Franco),  Rufus Sewell (Marco Venier),  Oliver Platt (Maffio Venier),  Fred Ward (Domenico Venier),  Naomi Watts (Giulia De Lezze),  Moira Kelly (Beatrice Venier),  Jacqueline Bisset (Paola Franco),  Jeroen Krabb (Pietro Venier),  Joanna Cassidy (Laura Venier),  Melina Kanakaredes (Livia),  Daniel Lapaine (Serafino Franco),  Justine Miceli (Elena Franco),  Jake Weber (King Henry),  Simon Dutton (Minister Ramberti),  Grant Russell (Francesco Martenengo).

A courtesan (Catherine McCormack) becomes the most desired woman in 16th century Venice, but faces criticism, humiliation and the Holy Inquisition.  


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.   

"Venice, 1583.  The richest, most decadent city in Europe.  Its women were treated like property  --  few even knew how to read.  But there were some who enjoyed a different fate.  The following story is true."

Veronica and her friend Beatrice escape from the house to go see the festivities in the city.  Beautiful courtesans parade in gondolas before cheering crowds.  Her friend's brother Marco is also in the parade of gondolas.  The brother puts out an oar for one courtesan to grab.  She does, but she pulls him into the water.  He comes up on the side of her gondola and she gives him a big kiss.  When he gets off the boat Beatrice runs over to him and they hug.  She asks him about her husband-to-be.  Marco and his cousin Maffio say only that he is powerful.  

Marco notices Veronica and likes what he sees, but his parents come out and whisk him into the house.  Veronica returns home.  There she asks her mother how does one get married?  Mother answers that marriage is a contract.  Veronica writes love poetry and her brother Serafino teases her about it.  Marco shows up with Maffio to serenade Veronica.  Veronica rushes down to see Marco.  On the gondola they kiss. 

Beatrice marries an older man named Lorenzo Gritti.  Veronica is aghast.  Marco's father Pietro sees how Marco and Veronica look at each other and he warns Marco that he cannot marry her.  Marco says he knows that.  When he is alone with Veronica he tells her that she knows that they can't marry.  He must marry someone in the same social class.  His marriage will have to be a marriage of state.  It's all about politics.  And yet he still tells her that he wants her.  Veronica answers:  "Not enough." 

At home Veronica cries.  Her mother speaks to her saying that she can still have Marco for there is an alternative to marriage by becoming a courtesan.  Mother says she herself was once a courtesan.  This shocks Veronica.  She is very frank with Veronica and tells her that her father drank their money away and now it is she who has to support the family.  Veronica tells mother to put her in a convent.  So mom takes her to a convent to show her what it would be like.  Veronica is repulsed by what she sees. 

Mother instructs Veronica in how to walk and eat properly.  Veronica reacts badly and mom locks her in her room.  When she retrieves her, she takes her to a library.  Women are not allowed in the library, but, courtesans may enter.  Courtesans are among the most educated of women.  Veronica loves to read.  Mother then instructs her daughter in how to attract a man with her attitude.  Veronica receives tutoring, learns how to play a musical instrument and walks on platform shoes to increase her height.  Using a naked male model, she graduates to being taught  how to deliver oral sex. 

Mother and daughter attend a party.  Veronica wears a very low cut dress like the other courtesans.  Mother introduces her to Minister Ramberti.  The man likes what he sees.  Before releasing her daughter, mother gives her one last piece of advice.  Remember love, but don't fall in love with the man or else he has you in his power.  Ramberti takes her into a brothel where there are many important men, such as the Doge (that is, the elected chief magistrate). 

 Veronica sees Marco and he her.  They are both taken aback.  When Ramberti goes to get her wine, Marco goes to Veronica, who treats him coolly.  Marco leaves when Ramberti returns with the wine.  Marco's cousin recites for the audience and Marco challenges Veronica to do better.  She slowly accepts the challenge.  The audience likes her.

Later Ramberti is alone with Veronica.  She starts to open her bodice, but has a hard time of it.  Ramberti laughs and she smiles.  They have sex (with nudity).  She finds it very pleasurable.  In the morning her mother comes in to show Veronica the money she earned.  Daughter is impressed.  She smiles and says:  "Who's next?"  Soon she has many customers.  Ramberti asks to see her every Thursday and she agrees.  Marco comes over to her, but she tells him that she's all booked up. 

At a get-together Veronica goes over to talk to Marco's uncle.  Veronica impresses the hell out of him by not being repulsed by his terrible looking feet.  In fact she takes off the bandages and dabs the sores on them.  He points out Francesco Martenengo to her.  He is admiral of the Venetian fleet.  He then goes on to tell her about every man there that frequents courtesans, including a Bishop.  Ramberti is the minister of defense. 

With Admiral Martenengo, Veronica's session is interrupted by the arrival of a peacock.  It is a gift from Marco with a note saying that all the most beautiful courtesans have peacocks.  She goes to the balcony and says to Marco that a peacock does not make an inheritance.  Marco is very disappointed and a bit crushed. 

Veronica throws a big party for the gentlemen who frequent brothels.  She is soon so successful that she can buy a large place.  Marco's cousin asks Veronica for a "date" but she turns him down.  She says they are both courtiers singing for their suppers. Marco now comes over.  She shoots him down too.  He tells her that he is sorry for the regret that he caused her.   She leaves.

Marco's dad tells him he will marry Giulia da Lezze.  Her father owns half of Lombardy.  In addition, her aunt is the niece of the pope.        

The Venetian admiral of the fleet tells Veronica that the Turkish Sultan wants control of the entire Mediterranean Sea.  Again the session in interrupted by a call from Marco.  He is drunk, but starts talking to her.  The admiral comes out to look at Marco and this stops the suitor in his tracks.  Marco is crushed once again.  So instead he tells Veronica, he is about to be married.  Veronica is upset now. 

Veronica watches from one of the bridges as the bridal gondola with Marco and his bride goes by.  Giulia seems very stiff and perhaps a bit scared.  Veronica writes poetry.  The men have her read from her books of poetry.  Maffio is very insulting to Veronica because he fells jealous.  His uncle never published a book of his poetry, but he has done so for Veronica.  He falsely apologizes for his remarks, but then with his sword, cuts into two parts the poetry book she holds in front of her.  Marco makes him leave, but Veronica grabs Marco's sword and challenges Maffio to a poetry and a fencing duel.  Maffio accepts.  Maffio fends her off while reciting poetry, but he gets his hand cut in the process.  Now he's mad and really goes after her.  Thank goodness he's a bit drunk.  He chases her into a gondola and she makes him fall over with her blade.  Marco intervenes, but Maffio uses the opportunity to sock Veronica in the nose.  Marco then slugs his cousin in the face and knocks him down.  She leaves while getting a round of applause.

Marco goes to her home.  They hug and kiss.  He throws her on the bed and they have sex.  (Nudity.) 

Marco wants her to quit the business, but she says she cannot.  He says he will support her, but she says he would soon grow tired of her.  And she doesn't ask him to stop having sex with his wife or other women. 

The church bells ring.  The Sultan has attacked and taken eight ships near Malta.  They've got a problem.  The Turks have three ships for every one Venetian ship.  They wonder if King Henry of France could be convinced to help them.  Marco sees Veronica and goes to her.  He wants to be with her, but Veronica says she does not trust him.  He asks her for a chance to prove himself to her.  She says he will go off to war and die.  He says he won't and asks to be with her until he has to leave to go to war. 

Mother is so disappointed in her daughter.  She warns her not to fall in love with the man, but it's a little too late for that.  They have a great deal of fun (amid nudity) romping around and having sex.  The time comes for Marco to leave.  They return to Venice.  The men are happy to see her for they want her to seduce King Henry.  She looks at Marco and he looks intently at her. 

King Henry arrives.  The Doge talks war and politics, but King Henry only wants to talk about Venetian courtesans.  So they bring is a bunch of courtesans.  But King Henry spots Veronica in the general audience.  He asks that she come forward and she does so.  He says:  "I want her."  To a private bedroom they go.  She lets her hair down and takes off her outer garment.  The King says he's a pervert and he wants her tears. She says she doesn't think that's what he really  wants.  He asks her then what does he want?  She says:  "Why don't we find out?"

Henry comes out and gets into a gondola.  He has to sit down very slowly and carefully.  Everyone is waiting anxiously for his answer.  He says:  "You'll get your ships."  A big hurrah arises from the crowd.  They start calling Veronica a national asset.  They have received more than 100 French ships.  But Marco is not pleased and walks away as Veronica comes out.  She chases after him saying that she could not refuse.  Veronica says he sleep severy night with his wife for duty's sake, but she only slept once with King Henry for duty's sake.  Marco answers that maybe he just can't live wit it.  Growing desperate, she tells him that she loves him.  He floats away on a gondola. 

While Marco is away Veronica prays.  Marco fights the Turks on board ship. 

A groups of "respectable" wives and other women ask Veronica to tell them what is happening in the war?  She tells them that the Sultan has told the Venetians to surrender Cyprus to him or he will take it by force.  Without Cyprus they will lose control over the eastern Mediterranean.  Individually, the women start asking about their husbands.  The admiral is alive and a hero.  Marco's wife asks Veronica what draws their husbands back to her again and again?  . . . "Like pigs to

 a trough."   She demonstrates on a banana by taking it all in her mouth.  Giulia demands that Veronica leave and Beatrice is forced to say goodbye to Veronica.  Just before exiting, she turns and tells Giulia:  "He's alive." 

Beatrice tells Veronica that she would like her to teach her daughter to become a courtesan.  The married woman admires the freedom and power that Veronica has.  Her own existence is too constrained and powerless.  She says she is in a state of perpetual inconsequence.  Veronica had at first refused, but now she is not so sure. 

The plague hits Venice.  The overly religious go around blaming the courtesans and prostitutes.  Now Veronica is accosted by angry mobs. 

When the men return from battle, they can't believe the change in their city.  The good people of Venice have lashed prostitutes and courtesans in public.  He goes to see Veronica whose place is marked with a big black X.  They hug and kiss.  He is so happy that she is alive.  He asks her to forgive him. 

Veronica attends to her sick mother.  She asks for forgiveness from her daughter.  Marco has to hold off the mob with his sword. 

Now Veronica is summoned to appear before the tribunal of the "Holy" Inquisition.  Marco goes to the Doge to protest against this.  He says Veronica was called a national asset, but now she is a "notorious courtesan".  He wants to resign his office as senator, but the Doge says he cannot. 

Veronica goes before the Inquisition.  She faces Maffio.  She has been charged with witchcraft.  Maffio asks how many men did she service over the years?  Yes, over 20, but she doesn't know if it is as high as 100.  Marco speaks up for her and says that Maffio is just conducting a personal vendetta against her.  Maffio agrees.  He says the woman bewitched him as she has others.  Marco comes to see her in her cell.  He wants her to confess, but she will not say she is a witch.  He says:  "I will not see you again."  Alone in her cell Veronica cries. 

Before the court, she says she will confess.  She starts from the beginning.  They try to silence her, but Marco protests and appeals to the Doge.  The Doge says to let her confess.  She confesses that she still dreams of being with her lover.  She then criticizes the church.  Marco speaks up and says he is her accomplice.  Arrest the senator from Venice for witchcraft! says the judge.  Beatrice stands up and says if Veronica is a witch than so are all the women of Venice. 

The judge says he will let her go if she names her clients.  She says she has no accomplices.  Marco tells all the clients to stand up.  They arrest the senator.  Ramberti stands up.  Then the admiral, and then many other very important people in Venice.  Even a very old man who needs help standing, stands up for Veronica.  Now Marco asks for the high churchman to stand up for Veronica.  He doesn't stand up, but does something even better.  He speaks up to say maybe witchcraft is too harsh a charge for the accused.  The Doge then says that the church should not sully its hands with a common whore.  That is the business of the state. 

The judge stands up and says:  "I leave this woman to Venice, which so richly deserves her."  Marco hugs her and she hugs him back.  His wife is none too pleased with that public display of affection. 

"The age of courtesans had ended.  In the years to come, Veronica Franco used her home as a sanctuary for victims of the Inquisition.  She and Marco Venier remained lovers for the rest of their lives."


Enjoyable movie.  It was interesting to learn of the important role of courtesans in 16th century Venice.  And it was also good to have it re-emphasized how bad women were treated in those days.  The good wife Beatrice was jealous of the courtesan Veronica because of her great freedom of thought and action and for her power.  That's a sad commentary on the larger society.  The ignorant people of Venice tried to blame the prostitutes and courtesans for the plague that struck their city and the politicians went along with it.  And then they trump up a charge of  witchcraft to put onto the influential poet and courtesan Veronica Franco.  We have come a long way, haven't we, even though we still have far to go?  The pretty Catherine McCormack was very good as the courtesan. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:

During the Middle Ages, Venice battled Genoa for supremacy in the region.

Venice became an imperial power following the Fourth Crusade. 

1204  --  with Venetian aid, the crusaders seized Constantinople.  Venice created for herself the Duchy of Archipelago, a maritime state in the Aegean Sea.

In the 16th century Venice proved to be a great place for courtesans. 

early sixteenth century --  Venice found itself at war with Spain, the Pope and many other European powers. Venice may have been victorious, but it went into bankruptcy.  As Venice declined, its trade routes were superseded by the new powers of England, Holland and Portugal.

1503  --  Pope Julius II started his tenure.  One of the political goals he had was to force the Venetians out of the towns and fortresses they occupied in Italy. 

1504  --  Pope Julius II forged an alliance with France and Germany to force Venice out of some of its strongholds. The plan did not have much success.

1508  --  Pope Julius II got Louis XII of France, the Emperor Maximilian and Ferdinand II of Aragon to form the League of Cambrai against the Venetian Republic.

1509  --  Venice placed under an interdict.  In the Battle of Agnadello the sway of Venice over Italy was almost lost.  The battle was so decisive, that the Pope soon had to form an alliance with Venice against the European powers.

1510  -- the interdict against Venice lifted.

1512  -- French pushed over the Alps, but their place was taken by other European powers.

1513  --  death of Pope Julius II.  The son of Lorenzo 'de Medici becomes Pope Leo X. 

1526  --  the League of Cognac pitted France, England, Pope Clement VII, Venice, Florence, and elements of Milan against Emperor Charles V.

by 1563  --  at age 18, Veronica Franco had been briefly married and given birth to her first child.

1565  --  Veronica Franco, at about 20 years of age, was listed as a Venice prostitute, with the fees to be paid to her mother (who had been a courtesan herself).. 

by the 1570s  --  Veronica was part of one of the more prestigious literary circles of Venice.  She even contributed to and edited anthologies of poetry.

1571-1573  --  the Holy League of 1571 - 73 was an alliance between the Papacy, Spain and Venice.  Pope Pius V organized the League to counter the growing Islamic activity in the Mediterranean.

1573  --  the Holy League collapsed when a financially exhausted Venice left to make its own peace with the Turks.

1574  -- Veronica Franco visited by King Henry III (fourth son of Henry II and Catherine de Medici) who ruled France from 1574 to 1589. 

1575  --  Veronica published her own volume of poetry, Terze rime.

1575-1576  --  a plague wracked Venice.  Veronica left the city for a while. . 

1577  --  she was raising her own children as well as nephews who had been made orphans by the plague.  She even proposed to the city council that it establish a home for poor women, of which she would be the administrator.

1577  --  she faced the Inquisition with charges of witchcraft. She successfully defended herself in court, winning her freedom.  But in the process she lost all her material goods.

1580  --  she published 50 of her letters as well as two sonnets to King Henry III of France.

1589  --  King Henry III assassinated by a young fanatical Dominican friar. He was the last of the Valois kings. His replacement, Henry IV, was the first of the Bourbon kings.

1591  -- death of Veronica Franco.  She probably died in poverty.


See:  http://home.infionline.net/~ddisse/franco.html



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