Zen and the Bar of Motorcycles

The Wall Street Journal, 15 July 2011
By Nancy Dewolf Smith

It is no insult to the detective series "Zen" to say that one of the best things about it is the opening music, which establishes a retro 1960s vibe—part Bacharach, part Bond—with graphics to match. The series is set in modern-day Rome, where the women wear tight skirts, the men are in sharp suits, and even the corruption is exquisite in its labyrinthine complexity. What gives the show an older-fashioned feel is the character of Aurelio Zen (Rufus Sewell), a murder investigator famous for his integrity in a city where the police are infamous for having very little.

Like the '60s, Zen is hip but still innocent in a way, not yet coarsened or jaded. Separated from his wife, he lives with his chic mother and seems to regard all women with respect or at least protectiveness. To the extent that "Zen" is a fable about a good man navigating a bad world, the cinematography sets the stage for a struggle, featuring dark interiors, dissolute mansions, crumbling hillside ruins and scenes of amphitheater starkness where the only colors come from white marble and conspirators in black.

None of that is why anybody watches a detective series, though. And this one, originally made for the BBC and drawn from a series of Zen thrillers by British author Michael Dibdin, is full of complicated mysteries and plot twists and turns.

Each of the three episodes in the series opens with a crime. This week begins with the assassination on a lonely mountain road of a judge—to be followed by two more if the killer has his way—targeted for a classic vendetta. But Zen's assignment, at least initially, is to deal with the aftermath of another crime, the murder of three people in a villa, to which someone has confessed.

In what will be a recurring dilemma for Zen, he is ordered by powerful politicians and their bureaucrats to resolve the case in a way that will keep certain secrets buried forever, but has nothing to do with justice. Although, as one bigwig tells Zen during a clandestine meeting: "This is Italy. There's a chance that the government will collapse in the next couple of weeks and then you'll be off the hook."

And so it goes throughout the series, as Zen maneuvers under his own pressure to discover the truth about kidnappings, murders, apparent suicides and conspiracies—but always under countervailing pressure from government ministers, prosecutors and the like to solve cases only the way they want him to.

Dissolute scions hidden in villas, nymphomaniac wives, a feral child, killers, schemers, louche scamps, virtual saints and "Da Vinci Code"-type plotters—these and dozens more cross Zen's path and test his ability to stay true to his moral values. Perhaps because this is Italy (the cast is almost entirely British, but you forget that easily enough) there also seems to be an ominous guy on a buzzing motorcycle in every episode.

True to his name, the Venetian-born Zen remains preternaturally calm through it all, at least on the outside. Not cool or detached, mind you, but determined not to flap or flounder. When his emotions do come to the surface, it's painful to see.

He does, finally, meet a beautiful woman (played by former Bond girl Caterina Murino) who has a sultry Anna Magnani look and yet all the tenderness Zen deserves. When she asks, throatily, "Are we going to have an affair?" he answers, "Yes." But Zen isn't the type to just hustle anyone off to bed, so we, like she, are in for a wait. Which ends, like each episode of the series itself, only after a long, slow denouement.

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