In 16th century Venice, courtesans enjoy unique privileges: dressed richly in red, they read, compose poetry and music, and discuss affairs of state with the men who govern the Republic. When Veronica Franco comes of age, she cannot marry Marco Venier, whom she loves, because she is well born but penniless. Her choice: cloister or courtesan. She steels her heart, and with beauty and intelligence becomes the best. She's a heroine when she helps convince France to aid Venice in war with Turks, but when plague descends, the Church charges her with witchcraft. At her inquisition, she must match wits with an old rival, speak for all women, and call courage from Venier.Written by
For me the power of this movie rests in its faithfulness to Margaret Rosenthal's book the Honest Courtesan; which is a well-researched look at Veronica Franco's life and the plight of Venetian women in the 16th century. Dangerous Beauty, while making certain assumptions and taking some literary license, was a talented translation of Rosenthal's careful research into a captivating film. Many of the witty remarks and social commentary come directly from 16th century documents. Surprisingly the most unbelievable aspect of the movie (her escape from the Inquisition and support from prominent Venetian nobles) is historical fact. While the details are unknown and the movie is certainly more romatically dramatic than I would imagine the actual historical event, it was very true to the spirit and feel supported by the evidence we have.
Venetian women, and indeed most medieval women, were in an unenviable position as second class citizens. Veronica Franco's struggle to find an acceptable position in society as a woman of good family but poor, is representative of the moral and societal conflicts of her time. Courtesans were not respected but they were accepted as a necessary evil. Their income was even taxable! In a society where female chastity was considered sacrosanct if she were to marry and a marriage bed was no less for sale than a courtesan's, women's choices were limited indeed. Franco's impassioned cry in the movie "I did what was necessary to survive!" is no less true were it not a verbatim report of her defense. As a penniless girl her options were limited to scullery work, the nunnery or prostitution. Her distinction was that, while she chose to sell her body, she never chose to be dominated by her profession or those who sought her out. In publishing her book of poetry and personal letters, she redefined herself as a woman first and a courtesan second. Using her wit to defend herself in the public arena she skillfully manipulated accepted literary mores of the day to show her mastery of the literary as well as political implications of her position.
Her greatest detractors were courtiers, such as Maffio Venier, who competed with courtesans for the money bestowed by wealthy patrons. As she says in the movie, they must both sing for their suppers. The problem is that while she is willing to accept they are equal in their need of patronage, he is unwilling to be outdone by a woman. His misogynistic works of poetry were directed toward Franco and other courtesans with the intent of parading his own virtue by damning theirs. The greatest irony is that Maffio was ultimately killed by a sexual disease while Franco died of causes unrelated to her sexual practices.
While there are those who might see this movie as an acceptance of prostitution, I believe they are missing the true story behind the sexual facade which they are focusing on. Franco's life was one of courage and honesty. She made choices that we may not understand, but we do not live in her world. And she accepted both the privilege and the degradation that her position brought her. This movie is a powerful tribute to one who sought more in life than mere existence and who faced her trials with the courage of her convictions, whether or not we or others share those convictions is immaterial.
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