Dangerous Beauty
directed by Marshall Herskovitz
(Warner Brothers, 1998)

From the moment Veronica Franco looks out at you from the screen, you know Dangerous Beauty is an aptly named film. What you don't know is just how dangerous it is, and who's going to have to face that danger.

The time is the 16th century; the place is Venice, the watery center of commerce on Italy's Adriatic shore. The city is in full bloom, as are its courtesans, arguably the most beautiful women in Europe.

But there's more to being a courtesan than being beautiful, as Veronica (Catherine McCormack) learns at an early age.

Abandoned by her lover because she has no dowry and impoverished by her father, who's drunk up the family fortune, Veronica is offered a simple choice: She can enter a convent or follow in her mother's and grandmother's footsteps, all of which lead straight to bed. A trip to the convent convinces her to abandon any thoughts of the straight and narrow path.

Dangerous Beauty is an odd film, part romance, part feminist tract. Its heroine is no frail flower: Veronica crosses swords and wit with the best Venice has to offer. She becomes a published poet, though it's not entirely clear that her patron was moved solely by her verbal artistry, and eventually wins the admiration of wives of Venice.

They look at her and see freedom, choices, a career -- all the things their marriage contracts have denied them.

As a tale of sexual politics in Renaissance Italy, Dangerous Beauty is just as good. When the Turks invade Cyprus and threaten both commerce and Christendom, it's not logic that convinces the King of France (Jake Weber), to provide ships for Venice's flotilla. Persuasion takes many forms, and so does Veronica.

All this is only peripheral to the main story, of course.

All Veronica does she does to bring to her bed the only man she's ever cared for -- Venetian senator Marco Venier (Rufus Sewell). He's a worthy man who's nevertheless obligated to marry someone else for the good of his city and family. The scenes in which Veronica and Marco spar are as insightful as they are fraught with sexual tension. Veronica and Marco are convincing in ways Romeo and Juliet could never be.

And yet the moments in which they abandon their civic obligations and fall into one another's arms fall oddly flat. The most sensual scenes in this most sensual movie look more like Romance Channel promos than erotica, despite the film's well-earned R rating.

Ultimately, Dangerous Beauty gets bogged down in too many misty montages, underscored with silken strings and dotted with gondolas sailing off into the sunset. It's so mushy at times that it's almost a relief when the plague strikes, though it's unclear whether it has come to punish Venice for its lasciviousness or director Marshall Herskovitz for his loss of focus. This is one costume drama that's better with the costumes on.

Venice survives the Turks, the plague and its own religious zealots, and so, despite its flaws, does Dangerous Beauty.

It offers us an insightful, if erratic, look at a faraway land in a far-off time, and, more importantly, a plea for sanity in all things personal and political that transcends its age and ours.

It is indeed dangerous, and beautiful.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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