GUEST POST: Rufus Sewell is the Compelling & Dapper Detective Aurelio Zen

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.

Acquiring Zen
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!

30 thoughts on “GUEST POST: Rufus Sewell is the Compelling & Dapper Detective Aurelio Zen

  1. This is an amazingly comprehensive review, Prairiegirl, thank you! Rufus couldn’t look more dashing here, he certainly could play Bond in his sleep. Glad PBS picked this up, that’ll spice up the Summer schedule surely 😀 I sure hope they’d make a movie version one day but they’d have to cast Rufus in the lead role. Thanks again for your great contribution… especially one that comes from the heart.

    1. PrairieGirl

      You are too kind, Dez. Now you are making me feel guilty, I haven’t been over to Hollywood Spy for quite a while, will wander over there for some Dezzy Delights again soon… !

  2. PrairieGirl

    Thanks, Flixy, and yes, I do apologize, to you and anyone else who decides to slog through this post! I certainly do get carried away when it comes to Rufus, there’s no doubt about that ;-D

  3. Ted S.

    I think I only saw three of his films, well in Dark City he was the main guy, while the other two, The Illusionist and The Legend of Zorro, he’s the villain. I enjoyed The Illusionist but I didn’t care for the other two films.

    This show sounds interesting, I’ve never heard of it before so I might check it out.

    1. PrairieGirl

      Hey Ted! I like The Illusionist too.Yes, he’s very good at playing the bad guy/villain, but in Zen he’s the good cop. The series might be a little too low-key for a US audience used to more drama and action, but it’s so refreshing and I was never bored. But I’m biased… boring and Rufus are two words that NEVER get put together in my vocabulary ;-D

  4. Robela

    Rufus is wonderful in Zen. He makes the part his own. It is a vastly entertaining series which deserves to carry on. I am hoping that the charisma of the programme will win over audiences and another series will be commissioned.
    To me it is criminal for something this good which viewers want to see more off has been on the face of things cut off in its prime.
    I am remaining positive and hoping the programmes merits will bring about what we are all wanting and that is more of Zen.

    1. PrairieGirl

      Hey Robella, it’s not only almost heartbreaking, but as you say, also a crime if they don’t make more episodes of Zen! And I remain hopeful too. Also, thanks for your nice comment to me on The Rooftop too, anything to spread the word on Rufus and Zen.

  5. Funk

    PrairieGirl, darn good review, and as a fan of BBC low key and highly effective drama’s such as Downton Abbey, Bleak House, Larkrise to Candleford, 39 Steps, and the latest BBC showing of Sherlock Holmes, I can’t wait for this, thanks for the heads-up.

    1. PrairieGirl

      Hi Funk, well I have to confess, the only program you listed I’ve seen is 39 Steps. It was methodical, calculating, and exciting at the same time, with quite a surprise ending. Looks like I need to get more BBC series on my Netflix list, or else pay better attention when they air here on PBS ;-D

  6. Funk

    You really piqued my interest in the software pack DVD Unlocker, I have a couple of mac’s myself use one for streaming all my movies and now I have used all my chances on the dvd drive can’t watch other regions, how’d DVD Unlocker work for you?

    1. PrairieGirl

      Hi again Funk, the advice I got from DVD Unlocker was for getting a DVD player for my TV (not the Mac), and the make/model they suggested was easily made completely region free (region zero plays all regions, just Google your brand and model and include “region free” in the keywords to get the code to use, you change it with the remote).

      For my iMac, I bought an external DVD player (wasn’t expensive, only $54), changed that one to region 2, and kept my internal DVD drive as region 1, exactly for the reason you mentioned: you can only switch the codes a maximum of four or five times. Having two DVD drives is the key.

      1. Funk

        Ah I see now, thanks for the tips, so I’ll be looking for an external DVD drive now next week, that should square me away tremendously..
        The first BBC drama I would recommend is the updated to the now, “Sherlock” with Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as Watson, there are 3 episodes in the first series, each at at running time of an pretty near 90 minutes, and they do not disappoint.

        1. PrairieGirl

          Ok Funk, SH with Cumberbatch is in my queue! I also really liked the quirky, eccentric and charming Doc Martin series.

          1. Funk

            Did you see Rufus in Hallmarks “Helen of Troy”…???
            Also have another movie he was in, in, “The Mermaid Chronicles Part 1: She Creature”..

            1. PrairieGirl

              Thanks to Flixy (a very nice birthday gift from her), I own HOT myself… I LOVE the pool scene near the end, you know which one I mean ;-O
              Never seen She Creature, one of the few of his I haven’t seen. It not available on Netflix, and even as diehard a fan as I am, I don’t think I would shell out bucks to buy it. What did you think of it?

              BTW, if you’re interested in Ruf and his many guises, check out my birthday post for him:
              He’s played a variety of characters, more than most people know. Of course, he’s most identified with bad boy/villain parts, such as the one he just nabbed today as the lead vampire, Adam, in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. He’s back to his old tricks again!

  7. kissmekate

    Great review, thanks!

    Loved Zen from the very first minute – the setting, the cinematography, the music, the storylines, the humour and, of course, the breathtakingly good-looking Rufus Sewell in snazzy suits and sunglasses.

    I still refuse to give up hope that another channel will take over. Absolutely don’t understand why the BBC axed it 😦

    1. PrairieGirl

      Hey fellow Rooftoppers kmk and kygal! Glad you enjoyed the review. I wanted to delve deeper into Rufus’ character than I had seen anywhere else, so thank for your appreciation.

      And I have to give a BIG shout out to everyone at The Rooftop.
      I used many of the Zen threads on our board to help me put this together. Couldn’t have done it as well without all of you!

  8. kygal

    Hi PG. You have made the RT proud. Great review! Totally agree with you. Hope a good showing on PBS this summer will bring more episodes. I also enjoy Doc Martin!

  9. Paula

    Thanks for the heads up on this. i love most of the British mystery stuff we get on PBS, but if Rufus Sewell is in it, all the better. Maybe this is just me, but I remember watching Tristan & Isolde and thinking, what is this girl’s problem? LOL

    1. PrairieGirl

      Hi Paula, glad you’re looking forward to Zen on PBS. Of course, you’re right, anytime Rufus is on TV is for the better! Tristan & Isolde is where I fell for the guy (hard!), I think it’s one his best roles. And yes, what WAS Isolde thinking, preferring Tristan, that crazy girl!

  10. Haha, ‘Rufusitis’ I like it 😉
    Lucky me, I’m from the UK so got to see this in January. Hope they do some more episodes, Rufus is always a pleasure to watch. Great review!

    1. PrairieGirl

      Hi Emma, yes, that’s one “itis” I don’t think I’ll ever be cured of! It must have been a great pleasure to see Zen when it aired right from the start. They could make a hundred Zen’s and I think I’d still be wanting more 😉

  11. Hi Paula,
    Great review! I found your blog when I googled “Zen” to find out if there were any more coming out. I am absolutely loving the series and am sad I only have one more to watch. Thanks for the info. Every time I find a series that I love, it seems I also find an end to it. I rarely watch t.v. except for quality shows such as Masterpiece theatre. Hopefully it will be picked up again, because I definitely have a new appreciation for Rufus Sewell. 🙂

    1. Hi Julie, thanks for your comment, always nice to hear from a fellow Rufus fan. It’s actually Prairiegirl not Paula who wrote this review, but I’m sure she’s delighted that you love Zen as much as she does 🙂

    2. PrairieGirl

      Hi Julie, I’m flattered to be thought of as Paula, she certainly is a great reviewer! So glad you are “upping” Rufus in your estimation, be careful, it can escalate quickly ;-D

  12. Just finished watching the second episode of ZEN on PBS…..great show. Thank you Prairie Girl for the great post. VERY sad to hear that only three episodes were produced. Great acting, beautiful location and wonderful story line. Hope we can see more. Good luck to Left Bank Pictures hope they find a new home for the show.

  13. Pingback: A Birthday Tribute – 44 Reasons We Love Rufus Sewell |

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