Venice is a city built on the spice trade; its fantastical buildings pay homage to the eastern lands that provided the goods that made Venice rich and powerful. As such, it’s always had a certain exotic feeling to it. The buildings are very different from the ones you tend to find elsewhere in Italy, and the feel of the city is different from, say, Florence or Rome. There’s an aura of mystery to Venice, as well as excitement, and romance. When you think of Venice, you think of water, singing gondoliers, and a bacchanalian Carnivale. It’s a place you go to to have fun, or to woo someone.
But for all its association with pleasure, there’s a dark edge to Venice. The city itself is something of an illusion—it’s impermanent, built on wood pilings, and it’s sinking (or not, depending on whom you ask). It’s almost as if it wasn’t really meant to last. The brackish water encroaches on the city, sometimes submerging it entirely, and brings in a dank, moldering smell. The waterways and narrow sidewalks twist and turn bewilderingly. It’s very easy to lose your way. This is an important thing to remember when watching this particular movie.
Before we start, our friend the Subtitler tells us that this is Venice in 1583 (curious that they should have changed the date—in reality, most of the events in the movie happened in the 1570’s), the richest and most decadent city in Europe, and a great place to be, if you were a man. Most of the women were treated like property, but some had a different fate. This is based on a true story (a story I attempted to read before giving up a few pages in. It’s the driest, most boring dissertation you could imagine.)
The Venice we first see is brightly lit with rich golden sunlight, and it appears the courtesans of the city are having a ticker tape parade. They float down the Grand Canal, reclining in richly appointed gondolas as the city’s men and women (??) rain down flowers and petals on them. One guy, grossly, actually picks up his daughter to show her one of the bare-breasted women. A few of the aristocratic ladies in the grand houses overlooking the canal disapprove and hurry their kids off the balconies as their husbands ogle. But in general, Venice loves its courtesans! In voiceover, our heroine, Veronica Franco, recites one of her own poems:
We danced our youth in a dreamed-up city–
Venice, paradise, proud and pretty.
We lived for love and lust and beauty,
Pleasure, then, our only duty.
Floating then ‘twixt heaven and earth,
And drunk on plenty’s blessed mirth,
We thought ourselves eternal, then,
Our glory sealed by God’s own pen.
But paradise, we found, is always frail.
Against men’s fear, we always fail.
Boy, is she going to realize the truth of that last line soon (spoiler!)
We cross fade from the sight of the celebration to an interestingly pretty young woman with reddish hair, who’s reading a book in the company of a few other well-dressed young ladies. Apparently, it’s a book she’s not supposed to have, because when a soberly but richly dressed matron comes in to slam the windows shut on the courtesans’ show outside, the young woman drops the book, attracting the matron’s attention. One of the other girls at the table, wide eyed with fake innocence, asks “mama” if anything’s wrong. The matron swirls out and the girls all giggle before going back to their embroidery.
They jump at the sound of a firework outside (in the daytime?) and the redhead with the naughty book (it’s Veronica, I’m just going to go with that since it’s shorter to type) starts to very badly fake feeling faint. Most of the other girls at the table give her an “oh, come on” look, but the friend who spoke up earlier is an easy mark and jumps forward to help Veronica outside so she can get some air. As she rises, Veronica grabs the book off the floor.
Once they’re clear of the room, Veronica takes her friend’s hand and races through the crowded streets to see the show. The friend (Beatrice) goggles at a courtesan in scarlet for a while, until Veronica happily points out Bea’s brother, who’s enthusiastically greeting all the courtesans from another gondola. The brother’s played by Rufus Sewell, the late, lamented Tom Builder from Pillars of the Earth, and in case you’re wondering, Veronica’s played by Catherine McCormick, who did Braveheart and then this movie before disappearing entirely. Bea freaks that her brother might have spotted them, but Veronica points out that he’s not looking at them. Veronica moves to a better vantage point and starts doing some ogling of her own, checking out her best friend’s brother, who’s sharing his gondola with Oliver Platt. Oliver speaks in rhyming couplets to a passing courtesan who doesn’t seem all that amused with his party trick. The brother (Marco) tries to join one of the courtesans in her gondola but gets pulled right into the canal instead. For being a good sport, and for being pretty damn cute, she kisses him, and Veronica looks both sad and a little longing.
Marco finally makes it home, where he’s excitedly greeted by Beatrice, who tells him he smells like a sewer (which is essentially what the canal was and still is, to some extent, so she’s not too far off there) and she asks him if he’s seen her husband-to-be, whom she apparently hasn’t met yet. Veronica hangs back and lets them have their moment. Beatrice asks if her fiancé’s handsome, and Oliver Platt breaks in to say he’s powerful, since Marco can’t seem to come up with a diplomatic answer. Poor Bea.
Marco finally looks up and notices Veronica, who’s apparently grown up quite a bit while he’s been away in Rome. They flirt/banter for a moment, and then his parents arrive on the scene, the mother asking what’s kept him. “Beauty, I think,” Marco’s father says, looking knowingly at Veronica.
Much later, Veronica arrives home, where she’s greeted by her mother and scolded by her sister-in-law for wasting time reading. Veronica asks her brother when he’s going to set out to sea again and wishes she could go with him. The sister-in-law huffs over the absurdity of that idea and tells her mother-in-law that Veronica will never find a husband if she keeps carrying on like a child. With a relative like that at home, no wonder Veronica stays out late.
Veronica then strangely asks her mother how people end up marrying (wouldn’t she know that already?) and the mother explains that they strike a bargain. Veronica wonders what there is to bargain over if you’re in love, and her mother points out that marriage is an economic exchange no matter how much love is involved.
After dinner, Veronica’s upstairs writing some love poetry when her brother comes in and steals it to read, despite her protests. She finally pulls his own knife on him and he hands the poem back before pretending to fence with her. He’s really getting into it, giving her pointers, but she loses interest fast when she hears Marco outside, singing a love song to her. He’s doing pretty well for a while, too, until Oliver Platt comes floating by to ruin it. Veronica listens for a while, then tries to sneak out of the house, past her mother, who of course knows she’s leaving and asks where she’s planning to go. Nowhere, Veronica answers, like a typical teenager. That nowhere has a nice tenor, her mother remarks. Veronica smiles, runs out, and gets into a gondola with Marco.
Inside. The sister-in-law is freaking out about Veronica being out alone with Marco, but the mother doesn’t seem so concerned. Talk turns to marriage quickly, but mom’s savvy and knows there’s little to no chance of that. As she says, a bride of Marco’s will need a king’s ransom.
Out on the canals, Marco and Veronica are blissfully floating along as Marco quotes some cheesy poetry before presenting her with a beautiful little book he says he bought in Rome for her. She’s savvy, like her mom, though, and knows he didn’t go shopping just for her. Oh, but he did, Marco tells her. He just didn’t know it at the time. Cute, Marco. Veronica then has to get playful with him and says that such an easy gift could just as easily be taken away. Marco asks her to name her gift, then, and she says the book will do.
Marco then says he thinks she’s too young to accept what he would truly like to give her, which is an icky line no matter how you slice it. He’s essentially calling her a child and telling her he wants to bang her. Ew. Veronica rolls her eyes and says she’s not so young as he is vain. That’s my girl! Marco laughs, and then leans in to kiss her, but she turns away and tells him she’s not one of his courtesans. He’s apologetic, so she lets him kiss her after all. She’s uncertain, because she thinks it’s a sin, so he spins that and tells her God created sin so they could know and enjoy his mercy. Good line, Marco. She decides to go for some more mercy and they start making out.
The courtship begins in earnest, as we see the two of them out horseback riding (she in trousers and riding astride, which would never, ever happen. Also, where are they out riding? Venice is built in a lagoon and they’re galloping around on lush grassland. Guess they took a field trip to the mainland or something.) Veronica also gives us some more poetry:
I find myself within his eyes,
And long for more myself to know.
He hears, it seems, my silent cries,
And makes my heart my reason’s foe.
How can this be to love so quickly?
“Love does not wait,” is his reply.
What magic weaves his touch to treat me
How can I now my love deny?
It’s Beatrice’s wedding day! A huge, expensively dressed crowd cheers the pair in a banquet hall, and Beatrice is smiling bravely, but her husband looks older than her own father, who’s trailing behind the bride and groom with her mother. The husband makes up for the age difference in his own way by presenting Beatrice with a pricy necklace, calling it a wedding trinket. If that’s a trinket, I’d love to see what a serious gift looks like. Veronica looks on in horror.
Oliver Platt breaks in to propose a toast:
Lorenzo Gritti and his fair bride,
Your union gives us greatest pride.
Good health, great wealth and lasting line.
On your union, God’s glory shine.
I really hope he either came up with that on the fly or that the toast sounded better in Italian, because that was kind of lame for someone who calls himself a poet. Veronica seems to agree with me, because she cringes as everyone applauds and the dancing begins. She joins Marco on the dance floor and asks how his parents could have done this to Beatrice. The fact that Lorenzo’s a cousin of the Doge and a good friend of the Pope helped. Veronica points out that none of those people have to sleep with him, and she and Marco get playful and flirty again.
After the dancing, Beatrice and her new husband are escorted into their bedroom as Marco turns away in disgust. He catches Veronica’s eye and subtly indicates he wants to meet her outside, but his father busts in and tells Marco that it’s all well and good to have a nice fling, but he can’t marry Veronica, and he should take care he doesn’t get too carried away. Marco impatiently shrugs his father off and joins Veronica outside, where they start making out again and Veronica makes the misstep of telling Marco she wishes they were the couple consummating a marriage just now. That acts like a cold shower on Marco, and he bluntly tells her there’s no way they’re ever going to get married. Veronica doesn’t understand why, and I totally don’t buy her cluelessness. She lives in this world, she knows how things work. She knows why Beatrice was married off to Lorenzo Gritti, and she knows she doesn’t have the dowry or the connections to be considered a worthwhile marriage partner for Marco. I get that movies like this feel the need to explain these things to the audience, but they don’t need to explain them six times. We get it, thanks.
Marco tells her he has to marry according to his station, and they start to argue about love vs. politics, and she still refuses to believe that things are the way they are. Marco tells her he wants her, but she points out that he doesn’t want her enough to defy his family and runs off.
At home, she’s crying into her pillow when her mother comes in and tells her she had this coming—she reached too high. Marco will never be her husband, but there’s another way they could be together. She could become a courtesan, like her mother. Veronica seems shocked by this revelation. Mom was one of the best, it seems, before she married, and she’d hoped to save up enough for a decent dowry for her daughter, but her husband drank away all the money, the brother isn’t bringing much in, and so now it’s up to Veronica to support their family. Yikes, what a harsh and horrible thing to do—guilt your daughter into becoming a high-class prostitute.
Mom points out that Veronica hasn’t been raised to work hard (and whose fault was that?), although she might be fit for a lady’s maid. Maybe Beatrice would hire her! Wouldn’t that be funny! Veronica snaps that her mother can just send her to the convent, then, if she’s such a burden, and her mother scoffs that Veronica’s not the type to become a nun. Veronica asks how she would know, so mom tests her by taking her to the convent, where she watches a young girl get her hair hacked off as she prepares to take the veil. This is enough to horrify Veronica and send her running. Weakling. I mean, seriously, you’re that worried about having your hair cut off? It grows back, you know.
Now that Veronica’s chosen her poison, it’s time to start her training. She looks completely blank, first as she soaks in a tub while mom tells her she has to know pleasure to give pleasure, and then as she sits wearing a face mask and having her hair brushed rather brutally. What was that about knowing pleasure? Then they strap her into some extremely high platform heels as mom tells her height’s an advantage to women. Veronica manages about two steps on her own before falling on her ass.
At the dinner table, mom creepily tries to give Veronica a lesson in sensual eating, but Veronica’s acting like the petulant teenager she is by gobbling food and gulping wine like she has no manners at all. What that gets her is a night locked up in her room. The next morning, her mother fetches her and takes her on a field trip to an immense, beautiful library. Veronica hangs back at the door, telling her mother she’s not allowed in there, but apparently courtesans are. As Veronica steps inside and marvels at the stacks of books, her mother tells her that the Emperor Pericles relied more on his mistress for policy advice than his generals. It’s the same with courtesans, so it’s important for them to be well educated. Veronica wanders around for a while, paging through some of the books.
The trip to the library does the trick: Veronica starts to settle down to her lessons and learns the subtle difference between courtesans and regular prostitutes. Anyone can flop down and sleep with a guy, but courtesans have to do a bit more. They have to seduce and enthrall men, and make them feel like their boring lives are actually interesting. They go through some facial expression exercises that include amusement, rapture, and submission, and she does fairly well.
Lessons now move outside, as Mom teaches Veronica about men and how they all dream of the same thing: the temptress. This is really reminding me of a scene from Memoirs of a Geisha, which makes me wonder if the author of that book watched this movie and was inspired or if it’s just a total coincidence. Veronica seems to be really getting into all this: we next get a montage of her having lessons, dressing up, practicing music and walking, and learning how to be sexy.
At last, it’s time for Veronica to learn that boys are different from girls, which probably should have been one of the first lessons. Her mother escorts her into a room where a male model is standing nude, and her mother shows her how to get a guy turned on, and to leave him yearning for more. At long last, Veronica’s ready.
It’s time for her debut. Her mother escorts her to the courtesans’ Party and Pleasure Palace, and as she steps out of her gondola, all dolled up, she doesn’t notice Beatrice being rowed past, although Beatrice definitely notices her.
As Veronica and her mother enter, they’re quickly greeted by a handsome, distinguished looking man with just a little silver in his hair. He greets Mom as Paola, so thanks, finally, a name! She greets him as Minister Lamberti and introduces Veronica. Lamberti asks Veronica to play a hand for him at the gaming tables, and Veronica accepts, getting a little last-minute advice from Paola. As Lamberti leads Veronica away, a squat Danny DeVito lookalike approaches Paola and asks if me might call on Veronica at some point. She accepts his card, looking a tiny bit disturbed to be her daughter’s pimp now.
As Lamberti escorts Veronica through the crowd, a passing courtesan pays her a compliment, which seems pretty generous, seeing that Veronica’s the competition. Guess girls gotta stick together, right?
Veronica and Lamberti reach the betting tables, and as he hands her some money, she coyly tells him this is her “first bet”. He tells her he’s honored and hands her a few more coins. Before the fun can begin, though, religious types in black standing on a nearby staircase yell for the courtesans to repent their empty excesses. One of them begins to chant the ave maria as others spread out into the crowd and start trying to convert the sinners. One of them approaches Veronica and Lamberti and asks them why they’re gambling with their souls.
Lamberti quickly escorts Veronica away and they go to another pleasure palace somewhere, where a courtesan with a lovely voice is just finishing up a song. Amongst the crowd gathered there are Marco and Oliver Platt, and can we get a name for this character, please? We’re now about a third of the way into the movie and I have no idea who this guy is! You know what? I’m going over to IMDB to see what the deal is.
Ok, so this is apparently Maffio Venier, some sort of poor relation of Marco’s. Was that so hard, movie? He’s commenting to Marco that Venice is essentially one big, floating brothel, as if he has a problem with that. Well, actually, he does have a problem with it, because he’s poor and can’t afford the high-class courtesans, and apparently Marco’s too much of a douche to front the guy a little cash. Marco tells Maffio to go make himself useful and come up with some cute rhymes, or something, and Maffio tells Marco he’s not his performing monkey. Their uncle breaks in and says they’re all performing monkeys, so Maffio gets up to do his little party shtick.
He asks the Doge for a subject, and of course the guy in charge of running the city asks him to do a rhyme about Venice. So, Maffio begins:
Born in glory, the virgin’s exaltation:
Fair and mighty Venice,
Queen of the sea,
Sovereign isle, is she.
This little ditty amuses everyone, but Marco’s distracted when he looks over and sees Veronica, all dolled up in the courtesan’s uniform of richly embellished gown, open in the front, revealing short breeches, stockings, and high heels underneath. She sees him too, and they both register surprise and horror as Maffio continues. Lamberti leaves her for a moment and Marco takes his place.
She recovers before he does and coolly calls him Signor Venier, which he scoffs at. She tells him she’s just treating him with the same indifference with which he treated her, which seems a bit unfair. He didn’t treat her with any indifference, he was clearly very into her, but there were other matters to consider, sadly. And he was pretty straight up with her about that. He tells her she’s confusing indifference with honesty, and she tells him he’s confusing honesty with venality, which makes no sense to me at all. She calls him a venal cur for some reason, and then Lamberti appears and asks Marco if there’s anything he can do for him. Marco backs off, and Lamberti takes Veronica away.
Maffio’s wrapping up, and everyone applauds. Marco calls on her, wondering if she can do better, and his uncle calls for a dual between her and Maffio. Veronica looks a little scared, but steps forward.
Veronica: Venice, mother, virgin, queen, and goddess–
To be all five at once is no mean trick.
If women’s lust lost Eden our address,
To be hearth, heart, and home to every…prick.
Everyone laughs and the men ask each other who she is.
Maffio chimes in:
Sweet Lagoon, that brings us lovely life,
Veronica: Rank with greed and trades devouring strife. The girl’s getting more confident as everyone applauds again.
Veronica: Lady Venice, her baubled self does show
Maffio: her raiment as the moon doth glow.
Her wisdom doth shine as bright as envious day.
Veronia: Her wives, like booty, are locked away!
The crowd claps and laughs, and Veronica curtsies to them, clearly a success.
Sometime later, she and Lamberti are alone in a room. Veronica’s nervous, and knocks over a candlestick as she tries to light it, but he’s kind to her, and she gathers herself, remembers her lessons, and tries to undo her dress. She can’t seem to manage the clasp, and he laughs gently.
Somehow, they manage to get her undressed, and they’re lying naked in the bed together, she looking uncertain and not all that into what’s going on for a while, but then she starts to realize that this actually can be a bit of fun, and she joins in. I’m sure it helps that this guy is not only really nice, but also a silver fox. Good choice, mom.
The following morning, she’s lying blissfully in bed when her mother comes in and gives her something to drink. Veronica winces at the taste, but mom tells her that having kids won’t help her in her new career. She tells her the potion’s not infallible, but it’s more comfortable than a turtle shell. I’ll bet it is! A turtle shell? I don’t even want to think about that.
Onto more pleasant topics: Mom asks how it went the night before, and spills a whole bag of gold coins on the bed, reminding her they won’t all be like Lamberti, sadly. Veronica grins nonetheless and asks who’s next.
Soon she’s well into the swing of things, strolling through a beautiful garden with other courtesans and clients, who beg her for a poem. She demurs, telling them she’d be too humbled before such a magnificent gathering of minds, as Lamberti pulls her aside and asks when he can see her again. She tells him she’s free Thursday, and he asks if she’s free every Thursday. He must really like poetry. He kisses her hand and heads off, and Marco catches up and tells her that if she scrapes any lower she’ll have shoes for earrings. Come again? Does he have some sort of beef with Lamberti? He seems like a pretty nice, not to mention wealthy and well connected, guy. I didn’t realize it before, but there’s kind of a lot of nonsensical dialogue in this movie.
Veronica laughs at this and accuses Marco of being jealous. He says one can only be jealous of what one can’t have, and she tells him he can’t have her. He arrogantly tells her there’s not a woman in Venice he can’t have, and she tells him there’s not a man in Venice she can’t. He tries to set up a date with her, but she says she’s all booked up. With a mischievous smile, she leaves him and rejoins some of her swains, including Marco’s uncle, who has diseased legs, it seems. Veronica kindly undoes the bandages and bathes his sores, which appears to amaze him. I guess he’s used to people being grossed out at the sight. In return, he does her a solid by telling her about some of the other clients, their likes and dislikes and what they do for a living. Lamberti, by the way, is minister for defense. One of the other men in the garden is a cardinal who apparently has quite the collection of women. Uncle Venier describes it as “biblical”. Heh.
As Veronica entertains a client (rather chastely) one morning, her mother and a servant come bursting in, chasing a peacock that’s a gift from Marco, according to the card around its neck. Veronica yanks a feather out of the bird (which yelps in protest, so I think the actress actually did pull a feather out of the poor bird while filming this scene. How the Humane Society let that one slide is a mystery to me.) and goes out to the balcony, where Marco’s waiting in a gondola. She tells him a peacock does not an inheritance make and drops the feather into the canal. Marco looks disappointed and Maffio, who’s in the gondola with his cousin, giggles like a girl.
Veronica moves into fancier digs, with nicer furniture and prettier clothes, entertains men at banquets and on horseback rides, and generally enjoys the good life. At one party, she’s uncharacteristically alone when Maffio comes over and joins her, saying it must be interesting to be in a room full of men, many of whom she’s seen naked. She laughs that it puts it all in some kind of perspective. He awkwardly asks to sleep with her at some point, and she gently says that they can’t afford each other, since they’re both courtiers singing for their supper, to some extent. He looks disappointed but accepts this as she gets up and moves away.
Of course, at this point, Marco joins her, asking what cousin Maffio (and this is the first time his name is mentioned in the movie) wanted. She fobs him off, so he asks her if she enjoyed the hunt that day. She says the hunt possesses a cruel beauty, much like her own, as Marco says. She asks if her beauty’s really cruel, and he says it is, to those she teases and refuses. She points out that it’s only her refusal that keeps him interested, which I doubt, so he suggests they test the theory. She shrugs it off, telling him that, either way, one of them will tire of each other, and it’s probably better if they stay as they are. He sincerely says that he’s sorry he ever hurt her, which seems to touch her, but then she switches back to professional mode, insults him, and leaves. Why is he in love with her, again? She’s been nothing but a bitch and a tease to him since Beatrice’s wedding.
Back home, Marco’s father is showing him a portrait of a prospective bride and giving him the rundown of her attributes. She’s a relative of the pope, comes from a wealthy family, and has a good dowry. Dad tells him he’ll marry her (Giulia is her name) for Venice, if for nothing else. Marco nods but looks sad. His uncle notices, and after dad leaves, uncle tells Marco he looks like he’s in love, and that he should probably tell the lucky lady. Hasn’t he, already?
That lady is giving a client an ermine rubdown, and apparently Marco stopped at every wine bar on the Grand Canal before getting to her place, because by the time his gondola pulls up and he starts shouting her name, he’s drunk as you can be and still remain somewhat upright. She comes out to the balcony and he calls her the brightest and coldest star in the Venetian firmament. He starts to admit he loves her, but her incredibly hot client comes out, so instead Marco tells her he’s going to be married. Veronica’s face freezes and she coldly gives him “felicitations on his grand match.” She asks if he loves her, and he asks if he has to. She spits that she hopes it’ll be a profitable union, and Marco sits down as she goes back inside.
Veronica stares sadly as a client leaves a beautiful string of pearls for her, and then she watches as Marco and his bride travel down the canal, cheered by other Venetians. Hey, the bride’s Naomi Watts! I’d forgotten about that. She looks pretty stiff and humorless here, but I can imagine you wouldn’t be so giddy and chipper going into an arranged marriage, even if the man you were marrying was as young and good looking as Rufus Sewell was in this movie.
That night, the new bride and groom are alone in a bedroom, she sitting stiffly on the bed, looking terrified. Marco asks if she likes poetry, and she responds that she knows the psalms. He asks her to tell him a secret, and she says she doesn’t have any. Poor guy, he’s really trying to draw her out, and poor girl, she’s saying all the things she’s been told she should, not realizing that’s the opposite of what he wants. He touches her gently on the shoulder and asks her to tell him a desire. She dutifully responds that she hopes to give him many strong sons, and to be a good wife to him. She looks like she’s about to cry. Marco gives up.
Veronica’s been spending her spare time writing poetry, which has now been published in a nice little book. She’s giving a reading at the garden they all hang out in, and Maffio picks up a copy and looks up at her jealously. I’m guessing he’s got a room at home papered in rejection letters. I feel you, man.
Lamberti compliments Veronica on the poems, but Maffio tells everyone the only form she’s mastered is a whore’s. Marco and Lamberti turn to glare at him. In his defense, Maffio seems pretty wasted here. But he takes things a little too far and says he didn’t think his uncle was still capable of getting it up. So, I guess that’s who subsidized the publication. By the way, that uncle? Is sitting right there. Maffio’s a dick, clearly.
Veronica gives him a freezing look, but Marco steps up and says Veronica worked for it, which is just too easy a target for Maffio. Maffio then asks Veronica what she costs these days, and she responds that if he’s as limp as his verse, no price could possibly purchase time enough. The audience gathered nearby snickers, which makes Maffio madder, so he draws his sword and lops the book in her hands right in half. Man, how sharp were those things? Lamberti and Marco restrain him, and Maffio apologizes.
Veronica can’t let this go, though, so she grabs Marco’s sword and goes after Maffio, to the amusement of the others. She asks him if he’s got the guts “to try again, blade to blade, and pen to pen?” They start trading couplets and duel across the garden. It doesn’t say much for Veronica’s brother’s training in swordplay that Veronica keeps getting bested even by an extremely drunk Maffio.
At one point, Maffio puts his sword through her sleeve, which scares the crap out of Marco, who attempts to intervene, but Veronica waves him off. It’s all fun and games for a while, until she almost takes his head off, and then she accidentally slashes his hand. What started as an amusing entertainment has now taken a darker turn. Nobody’s laughing now, as the two of them circle each other, the verses getting nastier. He chases her through the compound and onto some nearby gondolas, where she falls and he starts stabbing at her indiscriminately. She barely manages to escape, and even though there are about fifty guys standing nearby, nobody thinks it’s a good time to maybe put a stop to this before someone gets killed. Veronica rolls out of the way of a stab and Maffio falls over backwards. She apparently deems the fight over, and Marco jumps into the gondola to restrain his cousin, but he doesn’t quite get there fast enough. Over Marco’s shoulder, Maffio brutally sucker punches Veronica in the face, which gets him punched pretty hard in return by Marco. Marco goes to tend to her, and gently strokes her bleeding face. It’s actually kind of a hot moment, to be honest.
Veronica pushes him away and stumbles off, applauded by the men. She goes home to have her wounds tended, and Marco follows her, bursting into the room in a shot so ridiculously trite he may as well have Fabio hair and a cape flowing behind him. He kisses her passionately, and then scoops her up and carries her to the bed while the two servant women hilariously scurry out of the room. I guess she’s over being coy now? Ok, whatever.
Maffio’s been sent to lick his wounds and sleep it off elsewhere. He comes to on a street across from those religious types we saw earlier. The leader calls him out as a soul in torment, although I bet he’s got a super hangover and his soul is the least tormented thing about him just now. The leader preaches at him for a while, then approaches Maffio and tells him he can be saved, and he can be cured of his desire.
Marco and Veronica are cuddled up together, and he happily makes plans for that night, but she sadly tells him she’s got another client that night. She has mouths to feed, after all. Marco offers to support her, but she won’t hear of it. He’s amazed that she’s willing to continue with this life, but get a clue, Marco. Whether she’s sleeping with you and being paid or sleeping with someone else and being paid, it’s still the same line of work. It’s not somehow purer or different if she’s only seeing you, no matter how much you love each other. He tells her she has a choice, but she tells him he’d get tired of her pretty fast if she was just his, and by the way, it’s pretty unfair of him to demand monogamy from her when he can’t give it in return. She coolly tells him his wife is waiting for him.
So, Marco returns home to brood, while his wife embroiders in the background and asks him what his problem is. He coldly asks her what she means, and she gives him a nice side-eye before telling him she wants to be a good wife. He has no response for that.
Horribly, Veronica’s client is the fat, gross Cardinal, who’s throwing back oysters and saying there won’t be any more delicacies like this if the Turkish sultan gets nasty. Any further discussion is interrupted by bells ringing across the city, and the Cardinal wonders why they should be ringing at that time of night.
We get our answer in the form of a bunch of noblemen rowing up to Marco’s house, yelling for him. He hurries to the window and they tell him the Sultan’s attacked near Malta.
Everyone gathers at the courtesans’ garden, where Lamberti informs the movers and shakers that they need to sail immediately. Uncle Venier says their biggest problem is the fact that they’re really outnumbered. They need help from King Henry of France if they’re going to beat the Sultan. One of the other men scoffs, calling Henry a boy in men’s britches, but Uncle V. reminds them he’s a powerful boy. Marco and his father leave the group, and dad eyes Veronica for a moment before telling Marco that Giulia thinks Veronica’s bewitched him. Marco doesn’t care what she thinks, but his father tells him he’s got to have heirs at some point, so he should really get on that. Marco impatiently says it’ll happen someday, then follows Veronica as she leaves the crowded garden and goes somewhere more private. He hugs her tightly and tells her doesn’t want to share her, and that she shouldn’t be jealous of his wife, since she’ll never have what Veronica has. Yeah, because you won’t give it to her, Marco. To be honest, I feel sorry for both people in that marriage, because Giulia’s just doing what a woman of her station and time was supposed to do and act like, which isn’t really what Marco wants. It’s really not either of their faults that this isn’t going well.
Veronica worries about him going off to war, but Marco says he’ll be fine, since he has her to come back to. He begs her to cancel her other clients until he leaves, and she agrees. She asks her mother to do the dirty work, and Mom warns her that this is dangerous—falling in love is not good in this line of work. Veronica, of course, doesn’t care. She spends the next few blissful days out in the country with Marco, running around the woods, having dinner, and having great sex. The fun ends when a messenger arrives to fetch Marco. King Henry’s coming. Veronica hurries off to get her things and accompany him back to Venice.
The city’s looking a bit grim, with soldiers marching across the bridges and a pretty martial feel to everything. The pleasure garden hasn’t changed much, though. The usual suspects are gathered, and they greet Veronica warmly and tell her she’s just in time to seduce the French king. I’m sure Marco will be delighted by that. Just in case Veronica needed reminding of how important this is, Uncle V. repeats that without France’s ships, the war against the Turks is a suicide mission.
The city turns out in style to welcome King Henry, who rows up the Grand Canal in a HUGE barge, accompanied by the Doge. He eyes the courtesans draping themselves over the bridges above and compliments Venice’s “glorious architecture”. The Doge rather uncomfortably agrees with that assessment. By the way, Henry? Looks young, but not that young. I mean, he’s not a kid or anything, which is how the other men made him sound. In fact, he looks about the same age as Marco, if not a little older.
As Henry’s escorted into the Doge’s palace, the leader of that religious faction we keep seeing tries to intercept him and give him some kind of petition, but he’s quickly bundled away. Henry brushes off the encounter, carelessly saying that France has plenty of fanatics too (interestingly foreshadowing Henry’s death) as he takes a seat beside the Doge in the throne room. The room quickly fills with noblemen, their wives, and Veronica, as the Doge tells Henry the Sultan’s been spotted near Cyprus, and doesn’t Henry think that’s presumptuous of him? Henry couldn’t care less, instead asking about the courtesans Venice is so famous for. The courtesans are ushered in, and Veronica tries to vanish into the crowd. Somehow, Henry still spots her, and asks the Doge who she is. The Doge calls her a poetess, and Henry asks if she’s a courtesan. The Doge reluctantly agrees that she is, and Henry calls Veronica forward. She steps up, trying to ignore Marco’s glare, and curtsies to the French King, who grins and says he wants her. Of course. Marco silently closes his eyes for a moment.
Veronica and Henry are escorted to her bedroom, where he sits on the bed and declares her most exquisite. He knows the deal and says she has to do what he wants because he’s the king, but she counters by saying she has to do what he wants because Venice needs his ships. He laughs, amused by her candor, and she sexily removes a few pins from her hair, letting it fall, before slowly unbuttoning her dress. She’s gotten a lot better at that, I notice. Practice makes perfect.
She approaches Henry slowly, and asks him what he yearns for. He looks surprised to be asked that, and reaches out and cradles her face for a moment before brutally shoving her onto the bed, drawing a knife, and holding it to her throat. He asks if she’s heard the rumors that he prefers playing for his own team, and she says she has. She asks him what he really wants, and he tells her he wants tears. Whose? Hers. Okaaaay. Veronica, amazingly, is not scared, or at least, she doesn’t show it, and she says she’s pretty sure that’s not what he really wants. He asks her what she thinks he does want, and she gently pushes the knife away and tells him they’ll figure it out.
The next morning, it seems like half of Venice is gathered outside Veronica’s house, including the Doge, on his grand barge. Henry emerges, looking pretty relaxed, and climbs onto the barge, giving the Doge an awesome “wow” eye raise. He goes to sit down on a cushioned seat, lowering himself veeeery carefully, and says Venice will have its ships. The city cheers. Veronica’s a hero!
She’s being feted at the garden, where she spots Marco, who dickishly and spitefully leaves as soon as she sees him. What a teenage girl thing to do. She asks Uncle V what Marco’s problem is, and he tells her Marco wishes he had the right to refuse even a king her hand. Well, then, he should have defied his family and run off with her and married her, shouldn’t he? Coulda, woulda, shoulda. Veronica looks sad and goes after him.
Marco’s in full asshole mode as she tells him she couldn’t refuse. He thinks she likes it, and she thinks he likes what it’s made her. She reminds him that he sleeps with his wife every night for duty’s sake, and she slept with the King of France once for duty’s sake, so he doesn’t really have a moral leg to stand on here, does he? He’s not giving an inch, and he gets into a gondola and rows off, ignoring her “I love you’s”. What a hypocritical asshat. Why is she in love with him again?
As Marco battles the Turks, Veronica spends her days in church, praying fervently for his safe return. At some point, she emerges and is summoned to Beatrice’s house, where for some reason she arrives in full courtesan wear, even though we know she’s got more somber, respectable dresses. Not sure what she was thinking, here.
Beatrice has summoned Veronica to meet with herself and other Venetian wives in the hope she might have news of the war. Giulia is amongst them, looking defiant. Veronica asks what they know. Not much, it seems. She gives them the full background of the war, and why Cyprus is important. Essentially, the Turks could cut off Venice’s all-important trading routes if they take over Cyprus. The wives care less about that and more about whether their husbands are alive. Somehow, Veronica knows the casualty lists better than the men’s wives do, which seems unlikely, but ok. Giulia finally can’t contain herself and dares the wives to ask Veronica what they really want to know—what it is that draws their husbands to her. Veronica takes this calmly, and grabs a banana, telling the wives what the Latin word for banana is before deep-throating the thing. The wives react in disgust, and I react in amazement that that’s all it seems to take to be a courtesan. Seriously, blowjobs? That’s it? I think she would have gotten further with these women if she’d explained that her whole job is to find out what the men truly desire, and to get them to talk about the things that really interest them. That might have been helpful to them, but maybe she doesn’t want to risk her own livelihood by giving these women a notion of how to make their marriages successful and happy. If that’s the case, she’s kind of a selfish bitch.
Giulia snaps that just because Veronica can say it in Latin doesn’t mean it’s less obscene, and Veronica bitchily counters that just because Giulia took a vow doesn’t mean she knows how to love. Giulia’s had enough and tells Beatrice that either Veronica goes or Giulia does. She nastily says that Beatrice isn’t fit to be a mother, and Beatrice coldly reminds her that at least she is a mother, which is pretty far below the belt, even considering what Giulia said. Giulia tells her she won’t be for long, once her husband gets wind of this, and Beatrice backs down, dismissing Veronica. At the door, Veronica turns and tells Giulia that Marco’s alive.
Sometime later, Veronica’s changed into a more discreet outfit (see? Was that so hard, Veronica?) for a barge ride with Beatrice, who tells her she made plenty of enemies that day. Veronica points out they were already enemies. But the warning isn’t the reason Beatrice came to see her. What she really wants is for Veronica to train Beatrice’s daughter to be a courtesan once she’s old enough. The HELL? There’s no way this would ever happen. What kind of mother with plenty of money and an exalted position in the world would want her daughter to become a prostitute? Even a high class one? This is insane! Plus, I’d like to see what her husband and the rest of her family would have to say about this. Is Beatrice an idiot? Why does she think this would ever fly?
Veronica agrees and says she won’t pimp her friend’s daughter, but Beatrice seems determined. She wants her daughter to have the same freedom and education Veronica has. Veronica tells the bargeman to turn right, and tells Beatrice to look outside. The slatternly women arguing with drunk, dirty men are all former courtesans who have outlived their beauty. This, says Veronica, is where they all come to die, even the best. Beatrice tells Veronica she won’t get any sympathy for her, with her life of marrying for family and living a life of perpetual inconsequence. Sleeping with men for money is not the way out of that life, dear. Sorry, I know it sucked to be a girl at that time, but make the best of it. Plus, Beatrice’s assertion that her daughter will die ruing the day she was born a girl is quite the assumption. Maybe she’ll end up actually loving her husband and being happy, Beatrice, have you considered that? Just because you’re unhappy with your lot in life doesn’t mean everyone else is or will be.
Time passes, and the ships that brought spices and silks that made Venice rich bring a more insidious import: rats, which run down the mooring lines, spreading disease. A man collapses on a sidewalk, and before long, black banners are going up and the dead are collecting in the streets and canals. The religious fanatics are gaining more ground now, declaring the plague a punishment from God for the filth and sin of the city. Courtesans are assaulted and spat upon by an angry populace. Far from the city, a messenger brings Marco news of the plague.
The triumphant soldiers return to their beloved city and look in horror at what it’s become. In a square, three courtesans have been strung up and beaten. Panicked, Marco races to Veronica’s house, where he finds it marked with an ominous black X. As he runs up the stairs, he meets her, coming outside to dump out some water, dressed in a plain dress and looking exhausted. She stares dully at him for a moment, not quite processing that he’s there, and he takes the stairs three at a time to hurl himself into her arms and kiss her, murmuring over and over:
“You’re alive, you’re alive.” She hugs him back, relieved, and then begins to cry.
The horrible black X is for Veronica’s mother, who’s dying. The servants cry as Veronica desperately tries to nurse her and Marco looks on, helpless. Mom begs for Veronica’s forgiveness and then passes away.
A crowd has gathered outside, and Marco has to hold them off with a sword as Veronica and a servant carry out her mother’s body. Once the body is safely in a gondola, the crowd sets on her, and Marco fights them off. They leave, but are replaced by our friend the religious fanatic, who’s now gotten a whole lot more important. He solemnly orders her to appear before the Holy Inquisition. Veronica’s knees buckle but Marco holds her up. Even though Marco’s a senator, he can’t protect her. As the fanatic says, he has no jurisdiction, this is a church matter. Veronica is marched off and locked in a dungeon.
Marco goes right to the Doge to ask him just what the heck is going on, and the Doge tells him they have 56,000 people dead, and they needed a scapegoat. Marco urges him to stop it, but the Doge isn’t about to come out in defense of an infamous courtesan. Marco throws a tantrum and tries to resign from the senate, but the Doge acts like a grownup and tells Marco that ruining himself won’t do Veronica a lick of good. Marco stomps off.
Veronica passes the time in her cell by pacing and composing poetry, until she’s finally led out for her trial. Angry crowds shout at her as she is led through them, refusing to be cowed, even when they spit on her. She’s led into a somber room, where her main interrogator is revealed to be none other than Maffio, who was apparently won over by the fanatic big time.
The proceedings are called to order by the actor who essentially played this exact same role in Braveheart, so it’s a nice little mini reunion for cast members of that movie, now. I can’t help but wonder if that was done intentionally. The gross Cardinal who was once one of Veronica’s clients sits beside him, looking like he wants to be just about anywhere else on earth right now.
Veronica’s being accused of witchcraft and is told that if she confesses, she’ll be welcomed back to the church. Veronica tries to answer for herself, but is silenced. She can only speak when spoken to, like a good little girl.
Maffio gets started, putting his poetic turn of phrase to good use by explaining how beautiful, wonderful Venice has been brought low by war and plague, and it’s all the courtesans’ fault. He asks Veronica how many men she’d slept with, and she tells him she can’t remember. By the way, Giulia is in the audience, along with Beatrice and the other wives. Maffio accuses her of feigning love to all these men, which isn’t withcraft by any stretch of the imagination, it’s playacting, so I’m not sure what he’s going for here. She tells him she didn’t feign love, she just provided a sort of dream love that can’t exist in this rather fascist churchy world. Maffio gets on a roll, talking about her orgiastic, devlish dinners, basically, and Marco’s had enough. He accuses Maffio of doing this all out of spite, because he couldn’t have Veronica back in the day. The lead inquisitor tries to shut him up, but Marco will not be silenced. Oh, no! He’s speaking up for the woman he loves! The lead inquisitor threatens to remove him, and Marco flops back into his seat.
Maffio admits his cousin was right, he was once bewitched by Veronica, only to be saved by God. Veronica tells him the only reason she didn’t sleep with Maffio was because she loved another, which is totally untrue. Maffio accuses her of bewitching the men of Venice, and Veronica bursts out that there really was no other way for her to feed herself, other than to become a prostitute, and that there’s no reason for her to continue this charade, since the court’s clearly determined to damn her no matter what she says. Maffio urges the onlookers to feel her wrath, and tells them she lures the men of the city from their wives, children, and their duty to the republic. She’s the reason God’s turned against them. The lead inquisitor orders her removed.
Back in her cell, Veronica’s visited by Marco, whom she kisses passionately for a while, until he pulls back and tells her she has to confess to whatever they want. She doesn’t want to confess to something she doesn’t do. She gives some ridiculous excuse, saying if she confesses she’ll lose her soul, and therefore lose everything she is, her words, her heart, etc. That’s completely stupid. You won’t lose anything, Veronica. Any right thinking person would have confessed in a heartbeat, especially since there was no downside to it. In most cases, a confession would only save you from being burned to death. They’d still hang you, so most people refused to confess so they’d go to their graves with at least their good names intact. That doesn’t seem to be the case here.
Marco urges her to confess, for his sake at least, but she still refuses. He sadly realizes he’ll never see her again, which isn’t true, he’ll at least see her in court, and then turns to go without another word. Veronica spends the rest of the night sobbing.
The next day, Veronica stands in court and says she’ll confess, which elicits a buzz from the audience. She then goes on to confess that she fell in love with a man who couldn’t marry her, so she chose a different life, one that offered more freedom than marriage. Maffio tries to intervene, telling the lead inquisitor this isn’t the confession they were looking for. She needs to fess up to being a witch or it’s no dice. Marco interjects that she’s just getting started, maybe she’ll get there soon. The inquisitor tries to quiet him, but Marco calls on the Doge to intervene to let her speak. The Doge allows her to continue.
Veronica waxes poetic, kind of ridiculously, talking about how great it was to just live a life of pleasure, which shocks the good Christian ladies of Venice. At one point, Beatrice stands and begs her to save herself, but Veronica keeps going, talking about how much she likes partying and having lots of sex and being adored, and the inquisitor’s getting bored. He asks if she repents, and she says she repents that there was no other way open to her, but she doesn’t repent her way of life. The inquisitor is about to sentence her to death, but Marco can’t keep quiet, of course, and leaps to his feet, admitting to being her accomplice. If she’s to be damned, then he should be too, since he won’t live without her. I feel so, so bad for Giulia right now.
Marco dares them to go ahead and arrest a senator of Venice for witchcraft, and the fat Cardinal and even Maffio try to intervene on his behalf, but Marco won’t hear of it. Beatrice insanely declares that if Veronica’s a woman, then so is every woman in Venice. What? See what I mean about the nonsensical dialogue?
Now it’s Marco’s turn to be a poet. He agrees that Venice might be cursed, but it might also be living in a curious state of grace. He informs the court that he’s not the only accomplice, although he loved Veronica far more than the others did. How would he know that? What is he, a sixteen-year-old? What an obnoxiously arrogant thing to say. He urges Veronica’s other lovers to stand up and take some responsibility, or they’ll all be condemned before God. The inquisitor tells Veronica to name her accomplices, although, as Maffio points out, if she was really a witch, then they were most likely under her spell, which kind of excuses them from any wrongdoing, right? Does the inquisitor not actually know how witchcraft is supposed to work?
The inquisitor ignores Maffio and tells Veronica that he’ll spare her life if she helps root out the corruption at the heart of the city. Of course, she’s too noble for that, even though Marco’s giving her a tilted-head puppydog look. She says she had no accomplices, so Marco barks for all her lovers to stand, just as they stood against their enemies so recently. Yes, gentlemen, stand up and humiliate your wives and families and put yourselves at risk of burning at the stake! Of course, nobody stands, so Marco snippily says he just stands alone, then. The inquisitor orders Marco’s arrest, but before the soldiers can get far, Lamberti gets to his feet. When questioned as to his intentions, he simply says that he’s standing. Before long, others get to their feet, including one man who’s so old he can barely rise without the help of four guys sitting around him. The inquisitor is horrified. Marco turns and eyes the Cardinal, and says there might be another who would like to stand. The Cardinal suggests they might have been a bit too hasty. Perhaps witchcraft was too heavy a charge. The inquisitor is totally grossed out and wonders if everything he heard about Venice is true. Dude, you have no idea. The Doge suggests this is just a case of a common prostitute, which the inquisition doesn’t need to sully its hands with. The inquisitor agrees and leaves Veronica to Venice, “which richly deserves her.” Heh. Everyone cheers, Beatrice grins, Marco and Veronica embrace, and poor Giulia tries not to burst into tears. Maffio makes the sign of the cross and leaves.
On the emptiest canal in all of Venice, Marco and Veronica are rowed happily in a gondola, when the coda comes up to inform us that the age of courtesans had ended (oh, no it hadn’t. Far from it. Go read Sex with Kings or Courtesans if you don’t believe me). Anyway, in her later years, Veronica used her home as a sanctuary for victims of the inquisition, and she and Marco remained lovers for the rest of their lives. How sweet! (and also—how untrue, from what I hear!) But still, poor Giulia. I guess we weren’t supposed to care about her at all because Veronica and Marco’s love was just so wonderful. Maybe I’m the odd man out for giving a crap. I guess I’ll never know.