Zen, BBC One
The rakish Rufus Sewell, stalking Rome’s mean streets in 'Zen', the detective drama of the year, talks fame and family, and explains why an empty diary isn't necessarily a bad thing
TheArtsDesk.com, 3 January 2011
There must be good reasons why the fine crime novels of Michael Dibdin have been absent from screens large and small. They're probably to do with Dibdin's deadpan satirical tone and the anti-heroic nature of his protagonist, the Venetian detective Aurelio Zen. Also, his shrewd observations of the hidden undercurrents of Italian society are almost bound to get lost in screen translation. "Books and movies are completely different media", Dibdin once commented, "and the more the Hollywood crowd learns to knit their own stuff, the better."
So, it's pleasing - perhaps even slightly miraculous - to be able to give at least two-and-a-half cheers to "Vendetta", the first of three new Zen stories from the BBC, though a few of the production choices highlighted the paradoxes of international productions. For instance, while the locations were authentically and pungently Roman, since that's where Zen was currently posted, it was strange to find the police chief speaking in a bluff Yorkshire accent, while an Italian kidnapper Zen met during his investigations was plainly an Irishman. Yet Italian actors filled some of the supporting roles, while the co-headliner and love interest was played by voluptuous Italian bombshell Caterina Murano.
The biggest question for aficionados will be over Rufus Sewell's suitability to play Zen. In the books, Zen can be lazy and devious, but he hasdeveloped his own eccentric technique for negotiating the labyrinth of bureaucracy and corruption that shrouds the Italian police and judiciary. There's a seedy and unhealthy quality about him, though somehow his sleuthing skills remain supernaturally sharp. Sewell, on the other hand, looks crisp and dynamic and movie star-ish (an enraptured Ms Murano apparently describes him as "a god"), and there was one scene in this opener when he suddenly burst into frankly un-Zen-like action mode, deftly felling a couple of antagonists before roaring away in an Alfa Romeo, pulling off a handbrake turn that would have made The Stig gape in admiration (Sewell in telegenic contest with Caterina Murano, pictured below).
But sweep all that aside, and you still had a pacy and intriguing thriller, dripping with gorgeous panoramas of Rome and haunting Italian countryside, with a screenplay by Simon Burke which managed to hit many of the salient Dibdin-esque bullet points. The way the police are mere tools in the hands of politicians was deftly suggested, and indeed the plot hinged on Zen being faced with the dilemma of knowing that he would keep in with his colleagues at police headquarters by finding a murder suspect, Favelloni, guilty, but doing so would also risk the instant demolition of his career by an unscrupulous government minister (Greg Wise played Favelloni, looking as authentically Italian as a tin of Heinz spaghetti hoops). Even within the police force, Zen's unfortunate capacity for getting to the bottom of awkward cases and arresting the right people causes him to be regarded with suspicion.
Sewell had found a nice understated tone in which to play Zen, and was able to suggest an analytical mind ticking constantly behind a bumbling, facetious exterior. There were some smart nuggets of dialogue, like when Murano's Tania Morelli asked him: "Are we going to have an affair?" Zen: "Yes." Tania: "OK."
Or the moment where Zen was propositioned by the Russian housekeeper at the mansion of a billionaire murder victim. He looked stunned.
"What's the matter? You don't like sex?" she demanded. "No, I remember it very fondly," muttered Zen.
And, against the odds, this TV Zen retained some of the sense of primitive and brutal mystery that Dibdin brought to his depictions of Italy.
As the title "Vendetta" suggested, the two sets of murders in the story were both rooted in the past, one dating back years and the other stretching back over generations of inbred criminality. In the next two episodes, perhaps we'll get to see some of Zen's fabled culinary skills in action too.