In Sunny Rome, Solving a Murder Involves Sharp Suits and Sexy Talk

The New York Times, 14 July 2011
By Ginia Bellafante

Michael Dibdin, the British crime novelist and professional Italophile, died four years ago, having left behind 11 novels centered on Aurelio Zen, the stylish Venetian detective whom he dispatched throughout Italy to solve murders typically executed against the backdrop of political corruption, Mafia wrongdoing and aristocratic entitlement.

The books serve as cultural reportage as much as anything else. In the 10th entry, "Back to Bologna," Zen deals with a victim who has been stabbed with a Parmesan knife and bears witness to a cook-off between a singing television chef and an academic celebrity who is a spoof of the philosopher, novelist and critic Umberto Eco. Only in Emilia-Romagna, folks.

I'd like to think that if Dibdin had lived, he would have set an entire mystery series amid the belly-dancing escapades of Silvio Berlusconi's bacchanals. What we have instead is Zen revisited. Beginning this Sunday and continuing over the next two, "Masterpiece Mystery!" will show adaptations of three of the earliest Zen novels - "Vendetta," "Cabal" and "Ratking" - and I can think of no better way to culminate a weekend.

The films find Zen on the murder squad in Rome, where, despite a wardrobe and comportment that suggest Marcello Mastroianni in the 1960s, he is living with his mother at the age of 40.

Zen is brought to us by Rufus Sewell, an Englishman whose Mediterranean good looks contain enough intelligence to make the character's complexity resonant. He plays Zen with a perfectly rendered sense of professional confidence and romantic hesitancy, a blend of quiet rectitude and erotic bemusement.

Romance is an essential component of the equation. As Zen tackles one difficult case after another, balancing his own sense of justice against the imperatives of higher-ups, he begins to fall for the precinct secretary, Tania Moretti, played by the exquisitely beautiful Italian actress Caterina Murino as a woman dealing with the rubble of her own crumbling relationship.

Still, there is nothing of the morose in this trilogy, which makes it a welcome antidote to the craze for the grimness and melancholy of the unstoppably popular Scandinavian crime genre. Aesthetically, the Zen films are as distant from something like "The Killing," AMC's recent take on a Danish detective series, as an early James Bond movie is from an episode of "24."

The films deploy a light comic sensibility and graphics that suggest a '60s caper. They situate us in a Rome where the weather always seems heavenly, blouses are always unbuttoned suggestively, and no lunch transpires without multiple courses and repeated instances of sexual innuendo. Risotto is eaten; cigarettes are smoked; espresso is consumed; public displays of lust are evident. There is little resistance to cliché in all this, but the cliché is so visually appealing that you'll feel like a spoiled child if you complain. And you're given such a treat that you'll also feel like one, begging for more.

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