Dangerous Beauty [1998]

Although it was unfortunately ignored during its brief theatrical release, this sumptuously seductive production is that rarest of cinematic breeds, the (barely) respectable guilty pleasure. Combining historical fact with hysterical anachronisms of language and mannerism, it's been tailored for maximum contemporary appeal but maintains a lush, romantic feel for its factual 16th-century tale of Venetian love, lust, and political repression. Catherine McCormack (Mel Gibson's ill-fated bride in Braveheart) delivers a star-making performance as the "dangerous beauty" who becomes a skillful courtesan to pursue her forbidden love for a dashing Venetian senator (Rufus Sewell). It's all rather silly in a high-toned fashion, and the film turns dour when the church intervenes with a Scarlet Letter-like papal inquest. But the movie's joyously ribald vitality is utterly irresistible, and the casting of McCormack with Jaqueline Bisset (as her mother and courtesan mentor) is a stroke of pure genius. Merchant-Ivory would've made a smarter film from this material, but it probably wouldn't be nearly as entertaining. --Jeff Shannon

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