Zen - Vendetta: a TV Detective With a Difference

Global Media Update, 8 December 2010

British actor Rufus Sewell ('The Pillars Of The Earth', 'The Eleventh Hour') stars as the fictional Italian detective Aurelio Zen in three new films for which air this month in the UK, on BBC 1. Italian actress Caterina Murino ('Casino Royale') stars as Zen's love interest, Tania Moretti, alongside an international cast including Ben Miles, Stanley Townsend, Catherine Spaak and Francesco Quinn ...

Back to the Sixties
A British/US/Italian/German co-production set in and around Rome, and based on the best-selling novels by the late British author Michael Dibdin, the series features many of the combined attractions of Italy and the Dibdin novels including beautiful scenery, beautiful people, and humour. Add a rich musical score and theme tune, and you have a mix which Andy Harris, executive producer for Left Bank Pictures, said evokes Sixties and Seventies period pieces 'The Persuaders' and 'The Saint', and the kind of atmosphere created by legendary television and film music composer John Barry.

The series' lead Rufus Sewell said: "It looks beautiful. The stories are fantastic because they're based on really great novels by Michael Dibdin. I think, potentially, it should be like nothing people have seen before. There's nothing really like 'Zen'. In fact, the closest thing to it hasn't been made for a very, very long time. There's a kind of bounce to it that reminds me of stuff from the Sixties.

"It's fun and I'm having more fun doing this than I've had doing anything for a very long time." He added: "The relief reading the books is that there's a lot of humour and personally I'm trying to bring as much of that out as possible, for my own entertainment and hopefully for the entertainment of anyone watching." Sewell described his character: "He's plenty dishonest when he wants to be. He's sneaky, he can be underhand, he can pull strings, he can break rules but not in some cool way. He's just a bloke trying to get by. Beyond that, the great thing about Zen is that he just wants to get through the day and I like the possibility that the real motivation in a scene is that you want to get the crime solved because you're really thirsty."

Corruption, love, elegance and humour
For Caterina Murino the screenplays proved to be a very attractive draw. She says: "It's a perfect mixture of all the things that I would love to see in the cinema corruption, love, elegance and humour. Everything mixed in perfect doses. I was very surprised about myself because I'm very slow reading scripts and when I started to read 'Vendetta', I read it in one night. Then 'Cabal' was exactly the same thing, and 'Ratking' more and more. I said I would love to play Tania Morretti." Of Sewell, she said he would make a good James Bond. "I have to say that I was, and I am, a huge fan of Rufus Sewell and from the first time I met him, he was so nice, so humble, and I felt there was some chemistry between him and me. I felt immediately why Tania has a relationship with him. It was so nice to feel it for the first time at the casting."

Sewell was born for the part
The stunning backdrop of Rome also plays a central role in the films. "It is a great city to photograph and it looks beautiful," Harris said. "With anywhere that you get that kind of light, it's hard not to be dazzled by the images and excited by the results." But he added that it is the lead actors who make the three-part series.

"Ultimately, what the great strength of the programme is, is Rufus Sewell. I think this is a character he was literally born to play. Two movie stars in a series of films lusciously and beautifully shot against the backdrop of Italy, with some very powerful and interesting stories, is what combines to make it an absolute winner, I hope."

Exposing Italian corruption
The series, in part, focuses on the corrupt elements of the Italian police and justice system, and according to Murino this aspect of 'Zen - Vendetta' is quite realistic. "It's the truth today. Unfortunately you have to see the reality of Italy today. It's just a mirror ... it's the reality. And I don't know how an English man (Dibdin) who lived in Italy so many years ago, can be so brave and so smart to be able to describe Italy today. If you read the newspapers, it's happening right now. And this is so contemporary." Murino added that she thought it was a particularly brave move for the series to focus on state corruption, given that Silvio Berlusconi is currently in power and that his own company, Mediaset, is one of the partners in the production. Harris added: "Every one of Dibden's novels draws from a real story. What we've done is contemporise all the novels and set them in the same time frame."

For Harris, the series had to be shot in Italy to be true to the novels; the production based itself around Rome and enjoyed a tax break on offer for visiting productions as a bonus. And in spite of the fact that partner Mediaset is a Berlusconi company, there was no serious vetting of the script. "There may have been a little self-censorship," Sewell said. "The Mafia laughs when we talk about them," Murino added. "The writer, Simon Burke, lives in Italy and so he's aware of the contemporary realities of Italian life," Harris said. "And some of the passages in the book are not appropriate for television anyway. We were careful, but I don't think we held back on anything. The sense of Italian life I think is represented in the three films."

Zen had to be 'believable'
Sewell said he was careful not to revert to current TV detective sterotypes when interpreting the role of Zen. "I do know that I had a kind of type that I was desperate to avoid, this kind of corridor-striding wanker, which you get a lot of. I just wanted him to be human, believable. TV cops, especially in America, end up having the same kind of character, written by a boardroom. For me, what I loved about Zen was imperfection, you don't meet him at the top of his game. I love all the ways in which he's a bit rubbish."

Harris said the BBC asked for a detective that "isn't grumpy". "And he isn't. He's a funny guy."

Co-production partners
Left Bank Pictures produced the three films for the BBC in association with Mediaset Group, Masterpiece on PBS, and Germany's ZDF, with additional funding from BBC Worldwide. BBC Worldwide brokered the international partnership deals and is distributing the three films internationally on all platforms, including theatrically.

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