The plot, synopsised for you by director Christof Loy
In northern Italy, civil war has raged for decades between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. In the incessant fighting, many a noble family has lost a huge fortune – among them the Polenta dynasty of Ravenna. The dynasty’s demise can only be staved off by an alliance with a strong and financially secure aristocratic family.
Plans have therefore been laid to marry the beautiful but proud daughter Francesca to Giovanni, known as Gianciotto, a son of the influential Malatesta family of Rimini. Ostasio, Francesca’s ambitious brother, has already made all the necessary arrangements with his lawyer.
A stumbling block is Francesca’s headstrong nature. She would never accept a husband such as Gianciotto, who is deformed. Therefore his younger brother, Paolo the Handsome, will be sent as a marriage envoy. Francesca is meant to think the elegant young man is her bridegroom.
The day has come when Francesca is to meet her future husband. She takes leave of her sickly younger sister Samaritana. Both are full of apprehension and Francesca is extremely tense. Their companions finally announce the arrival of the bridegroom.
They, too, believe that handsome Paolo is the man she will marry. When Paolo appears before her, she is overwhelmed and when she is given the marriage contract to sign, she only has eyes for her supposed husband-to-be.
Francesca is quick to discover she has been the victim of deception and is now the wife of the “lame-legged” Gianciotto. She has sworn to take revenge on the Malatesta brothers.
On a day of particularly fierce fighting in the city, she fearlessly goes to the defensive tower of the Malatestas. There she meets Paolo for the first time since the fateful wedding day, and demands expiation for the wrong he has done her.
But Paolo asserts he knew nothing about the plan to trick her. He confesses that he fell in love with her at their first encounter and has not been able to forget her. She cynically demands he pay with his life in the approaching battle. But she realizes that she can’t conquer her feelings for Paolo any more. She sees the battle as a trial by ordeal: should Paolo survive unscathed, he would be freed of guilt and granted forgiveness through love.
Paolo kills the enemy leader and is himself struck down by what he too imagines to be the judgement of God. He can no longer master his desire for Francesca.
However he is well aware that Francesca is his older brother’s wife, and their actions cannot be undone. When an initial victory in battle is celebrated, she offers her wine glass to her husband, then to Paolo, and then to the third brother, Malatestino, who has lost an eye in the fighting.
From this moment on, if not earlier, all three brothers are under Francesca’s spell.
Directly after his triumph in battle, Paolo left to take up a political post in Florence, so as not to be consumed by jealousy. Now he has returned to Rimini and Francesca can barely wait to see him again. Her confidante Smaragdi arranges a meeting between them. Francesca and Paolo become aware that their love is fated, and give up resisting it.
The one-eyed Malatestino suspects that Francesca is intimately involved with Paolo. By playing with him, Francesca tries to exert control over him, too. But she overplays her hand, and Malatestino informs his brother Gianciotto that he is being cheated on. Malatestino tells Gianciotto that he can surprise Francesca in her bedroom with Paolo that night.
Gianciotto, who until then believed that Francesca loved him and that his favourite brother Paolo would never do anything to harm him, vows revenge.
Francesca’s companions are worried about her, feeling that she is increasingly distracted and distant. Francesca nonetheless insists on being left alone. With her youngest friend Biancofiore, who reminds her of her recently deceased sister Samaritana, she confides that she has presentiments of death. In defiance of reason, she lets Paolo into her room late at night. Destiny is now fulfilled as Gianciotto, in a jealous rage, stabs his wife and his brother Paolo to death.