Indeed, the perpetually under-appreciated and underrated British actor Rufus Sewell is the male lead of three superb episodes of Zen, which appeared on BBC1 the first three Sundays in January, 2011. If you’re in the US, look for Zen on Masterpiece Mystery on PBS this summer, beginning July 17. Check out the PBS trailer.
Thanks to some Googling and an extremely helpful techie at DVD Unlocker, I bought a new DVD player for my TV and successfully switched it over to region free status. This meant I could satisfy my impatience for viewing Rufus as a rare leading man by pre-ordering the Zen DVD from Amazon UK, and having it arrive only a week after the last episode aired in Britain. And after changing a new external DVD player now connected to my Mac to region 2, I can capture clips of the series to my hearts content.
Books vs. TV
The TV series is based on three of 11 novels in the Aurelio Zen Mystery Series by British author Michael Dibdin (who passed away in 2007), and set throughout Italy. Dibdin adeptly captures Italy and the Italian culture he lived in for many years. Reading the novels assured me Rufus was perfect for the role of the sometimes underwhelming, other times brilliant Italian detective. Taken as a whole, the TV series varies by about 50% from the novels. Dibdin wrote these novels in the late 80s and early 90s, and they were set in the early 80s, when computers were just beginning to become common in the workplace. The TV series is contemporary and current. Dibdin wrote Ratking first, then Vendetta and Cabal. The TV series starts with Vendetta, then Cabal and Ratking. The script for Vendetta strays in a few places, but improves on the book for the small screen. The scene of Rufus struggling through the rushing water in the claustrophobic cave (yes, according the man himself, it really is him) is more suspenseful than the novel’s endless chase across Mediterranean scrubland:
And in the Cabal novel, a good portion occurs in St. Peter’s Basilica, so even though the series is filmed entirely on location, that’s one place they would not be able to film, thus the plot change for the TV series. Most of the deviation from the books worked for me, but a few key parts of the novels were left out, probably from a runtime standpoint. Some diehards of the books have begged to differ.
In the beginning
The opening credits/titles and music by Adrian Johnston are slickly 2011, but evoke a feeling of 60s spy movies. Watch the eye-catching opening sequence here:
English vs. Italian
The male cast is mostly Brits, and all keep their pleasant English accents, but the prominent female (Tania Moretti, played by Casino Royale‘s Caterina Murino, Zen’s love interest), is Italian. There’s been criticism of filming a mostly British cast in an Italian setting (however, all props like newspapers, TVs playing the background, cigarette packages are all in Italian), so only the accents might throw you off. But to me a British accent is almost universal, even more so than an American one, and especially in Europe, so doesn’t seem a bit out of place to me.
Even though the novels took place throughout Italy, Zen takes place in Rome. The Roman locations are stunning, and the cinematography is straightforward, yet has an elegance befitting the city. The interiors are equally impressive. With each episode running 90 minutes, you feel more like you’re watching a feature film instead of a TV episode. And as ze blogger Flixy will confirm, I appreciate and truly enjoy watching films set on location in natural light, bustling backgrounds and ordinary life activities.
Detective Aurelio Zen
Ok, so here’s the fun part! First of all, Zen is always quick to point out he is from Venice. If you live in Italy, regional geography makes a difference. This from a blog written by an Italian: “Yes, Zen is a real Venetian surname, pronounced as Tzen.”
He is at once part Bond, part Columbo, and part Sherlock Holmes (the Basil Rathbone one, not the Robert Downy Jr. variety). Ironically, he is most confident with Amedeo Colonna (Ben Miles), a high-level Italian ministry official who insists on dealing with Zen behind the scenes on every case, strongly suggesting that Zen “solve” or “arrange” the case to his benefit, so as not to upset or expose his slightly shady affairs involving perpetrators or other under-the-table deals. If Zen is intimidated by him, he doesn’t show it.
Dealing with Zen’s boss, Moscati (Stanley Townsend), is another story. He usually has a different outcome of Zen’s case in mind, if only to save face, or to not jeopardize his department’s budget. One of his fellow detectives, Giorgio (Vincent Riotta), is a loyal friend, but two of his other colleagues love to see him screw up, and don’t hesitate to tell him so, and mercilessly taunt him if he does. He takes this with a grain of salt, but also with a touch of dismay. He approaches his cases casually at first, usually as devoid of direction as a lay person would be, but with persistent, Columbo-like determination, his activities ultimately lead to all the answers.
And then there’s Tania, the “murder squad’s” (yes, she really answers the phone with that greeting!) Admin assistant who trusts Zen and opens up to him – sort of. Zen’s initial attraction is reluctant, shy and school-boyish, and as time goes on it alternates between unassuming and confident as he gets to know her better. He has quite a different attitude towards his soon-to-be ex-wife:
All of this shows what a real, varied and well-rounded character Rufus knows how to play, and he does it in complete style. His suits are almost a character in themselves, and I even found board threads with guys endlessly discussing his choice of sunglasses (Persol, model PO2832S, confirmed) and his watch (possibly an Omega Deville?). Go figure!
Good News, Bad News
Zen was even better seeing it the second time around. The plot line of the last episode was left wide open for continuing the series. Based on successful ratings in Britain, all of us with Rufusitis were hoping the remaining seven novels would soon follow. In late January, Simon Burke, the screenwriter who adapted the first three novels for the screen, rather unofficially it turns out, said that they were going ahead with script writing and was anticipating going to Rome again this spring and summer to continue filming. But at the end of February, BBC1 abruptly cancelled any further shows. At the same time, the production team of Left Bank Pictures said, “we are currently in discussion with other UK broadcasters about Zen. We were delighted that this fresh and stylish detective drama resonated with British viewers, television critics and fans of the novels alike and remain hugely proud of the three films.”
The three-part series has since been sold to broadcasters in Australia, Denmark, Holland, Japan and Sweden and most recently, Australia. In early March, Andy Harries of Left Bank emailed a fan: “I am doing my very best to find a new home [for Zen]. It’s a major blow but we are not out of it yet.” Let’s hope the PBS airings in the US in July brings renewed interest for more episodes to get bankrolled.
The Bottom Line
Is the Zen series perfect? Not completely. The music could stand more variety and some of the acting and dialog could be a little less low key at times. But it’s certainly a refreshing change from the usual shoot-’em-up cop shows. The premise and plots are intriguing, the location is “bella” and the recurring characters really begin to grow (fondly) on you by the third episode. There’s an expression “leave them wanting more.” Zen does, undoubtedly.
Have you seen Zen? What did you think? Are you looking forward to the series on PBS in July? If so, let us know!