Written by Robert Savage
Dangerous Beauty is about the struggle’s women faced in the early modern/Renaissance period. The film follows the journey of Veronica Franco, an Italian poet and courtesan who lived in real life. The plot follows a similar line to many romantic dramas. Veronica Franco is attracted to a wealthy nobleman called Marco, but she is prevented from marriage by her poor social status. The plot periodically focuses on the romance, but Veronica’s journey as a courtesan is what makes this worth the watch. Veronica starts as an unimportant individual that seems destined for a life of pain. However, as her story progresses, she comes to exert influence over some of the most important decision makers in Venice. Her story is a good illustration of how courtesans were generally the most educated women during the early modern period. It is realistic example of how a woman could gain autonomy through her mind in this period. It is an underrated film that tells the story of an individual that has been forgotten in history.
Veronica Franco on the canals of Venice. SOURCE: The Movie Database.
The most important person for Veronica Franco is her mother. She was a courtesan herself and she used it to manufacture her own position in society. This allows for Franco to grow up in a less conservative household. From the beginning of the film, we see that Veronica is interested in art, writing and is a bit of a tomboy that is willing to go toe to toe with men. As a courtesan, she was able to bring all the attributes she had learnt into play. Her courtesan work made her self-sufficient enough to write poetry. In real life she published a volume of poetry called Terze rime in 1575 and a collection of letters titled ‘Familiar Letters to Various People’ in 1580. Her achievements are even more astonishing than what is shown in the movie. In real life, Franco had to cope with birthing and looking after several children. Franco was clearly a leader. In 1577 she tried to lobby the Venetian City Council to set up a home for poor women. Her writing took no prisoners, as she sought to lead other women to liberate themselves.
Veronica Franco is a solid example of how women improved their lot in early modern times but were also still limited by traditional medieval rules. The early modern period in Europe saw an increase in female literacy. Franco was part of a movement of women that were beginning to challenge the narratives of a male dominated society. Moreover, the influence she exerted as a courtesan shows how some women were able to have some form of power in this period. Yet, the film is honest with the deficiencies of early modern Europe when it came to women’s roles. Franco’s successes are swept away when the plague hits Venice. As the Inquisition was still popular, the Catholic Church blamed this on the sinfulness of the population. As a woman with no official nobility, Franco is the easy target for condemnation. In the film she is put on trial, which is a recreation of real-life events. It was still difficult for European societies to break away from their long-held beliefs.
Veronica and Marco share a rare intimate moment. SOURCE: Medievalists.net.
For a relatively unknown film it does boast a cast of well-known actors. Rufus Sewell plays the playboy aristocrat Marco. It does feel like his character is slightly underdeveloped and positioned as a generic male love interest. Although, Sewell is well versed in the role of heartthrob and he is well suited to the role of a Renaissance nobleman. Unsurprisingly Naomi Watts is fantastic as the timid and scorned wife of Marco, who plays second fiddle to Veronica. Her character is an example of women who were stuck in the medieval structures of Renaissance Italy. She is unable to make Marco happy, because she has not developed as a free person. The free-spirited Marco asks what she wants, but Watts’ character simply wishes to please him because she has been taught nothing else. Catherine McCormack really steals the show as Veronica Franco. Sometimes portrayals of famous historical individuals fall flat on the big screen. However, McCormack manages to capture Veronica Franco’s real-life wit.
A great element of this film is the scenery. Despite the story being based in Venice, shooting was done in Rome because of filming restrictions in Venice. Naturally, it would be difficult to film the canal scenes without blocking traffic in Venice. The scenery is still able to capture the sensuousness and romance of Renaissance Italy, and it works with the themes of the film. Credit should be given to director Marshall Herskovitz for producing such an aesthetically pleasing movie given the financial restrictions he was under. It was filmed in 1998 so there was less technology to manufacture idyllic scenery. In an interview he mentioned that it was a struggle to be economical when making the film. The niche audience of a period piece seemed unworthy of the expense to create one. It is not perfect in terms of accuracy, but I believe that the scenery compliments the overall atmosphere of the film.
Veronica using her freedom as a courtesan to raid to local library. SOURCE: Medievalists.net.
There are a few drawbacks that prevent this from being a five-star film. The final scene had the potential to be meaningful, but in the end, it devolves into over-the-top court drama. This ending is a bit of a disappointment, considering it had the chance to put the icing on Veronica’s story. The romance between Veronica and Marco does feel a tad forced. I would argue that it takes away from the biographical potential of the movie. I can see that the director was trying to reach out to a wider audience, however I think that Franco’s life story is interesting enough to avoid such melodrama. Herskovitz never said he was going for full accuracy. This is present in the costumes which generally look way too modern. It is unfortunate that the director shied away from the less glamorizing aspects of Renaissance Italy, but this is a general problem I find with early modern productions.
Dangerous Beauty is not the most technically excellent film you will ever watch, but it is an exciting historical drama. Most of the events that occur happened in real life. The development of Veronica Franco’s character into a politically influential character feels realistic and is the most interesting part of the story. If you are not as interested in the plot, it still provides incredible visuals that are impressive considering its low budget. I think that some of the characters act irrationally, however there are some great emotional moments and interactions between certain characters. It definitely made me more curious about early modern Europe, especially women’s changing roles within society. I would not say that it should be on your top fifty list of films. However, it is intriguing and aesthetically appealing enough to watch on a boring Sunday in lockdown.
Written by Robert Savage
Robert Savage is a history graduate from the University of Kent, living in the fine city of Norwich. Once described by a friend as a ‘speed obsessed freak who likes cheese’. He enjoys travel, motorsports, writing, and films.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the InFocus History website or its editors.