Rufus Sewell playing a detective. In Rome. What’s not to like? For some reason, this series (based on the Aurelio Zen novels by Michael Dibdin) got the axe from the BBC after three episodes, but the first episode, Vendetta, is the best mystery I’ve seen in a long time. The writing is fresh, the plot is original, the scenery is gorgeous, and the acting is excellent.
Everyone in Rome conveniently speaks English (with a wide variety of accents), and at times the actors seem more British than Italian, but once you suspend your disbelief on that point, it works. Aurelio Zen is a refreshingly sympathetic character. In a culture of corruption, he has a moral compass, and uses it. Without a hint of self-righteousness, he is simply a decent human being who refuses to do what he knows to be wrong.
When we meet up with him in Vendetta, he’s facing a dilemma. Amedeo Colonna, government minister, has secretly ordered Zen to “fix” a triple murder case and get the prime suspect freed. There are a few holes in the case worth following up, but Zen’s boss tells him that under no circumstances is he to let the conviction slip through his fingers. Either way, he can’t win.
Meanwhile, the boys in the office are taking bets on who will be the first to bed the boss’ beautiful new assistant, Tania.
Foremost among these wolves is Vincenzo Fabri, who owes his success to family connections and a willingness to be bent. He smugly tells Zen, “You’re sitting on this bomb of a case because it’s all a game, and you don’t know how to play.”
Meanwhile, Zen realizes that he’s being followed. When he calls Colonna to ask whether it’s one of his men, the minister replies, “That’s very disturbing. Don’t call this number again.”
Tito, the man in pursuit of Zen, turns out to be a ghost from his past, and very possibly a lethal one. He’s played by a deliciously evil Peter Guinness (CH fans will remember him as one of the Templars in Ivanhoe).
One of the most satisfying aspects of this show is that it explores Zen’s interactions with women. Zen is divorced and lives with his mother Donata, which strikes me as a very Italian thing to do. When he throws up the morning after getting the order to fix the case, Donata tells him, “Your father always used to be sick when he was worried.”
One of my favorite scenes happens when Tania says she needs to ask a favor, and Zen unhesitatingly says yes. Like the gentleman he is, he doesn’t press her for explanations. Later, Zen asks Tania to help him with his case. Even though they are near-strangers, they seem to instinctively recognize each other as people of integrity.
The prime suspect, Renato Favelloni, is played by Greg Wise, still as handsome as ever (he was the charismatic but feckless Willoughby in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility). Wise/Favelloni is naturally charming, and convinces Zen that he didn’t commit the crime, even though he confessed to the murders. But is he telling the truth?
Dispatched to rural Sicily to re-investigate the Faso murder case, Zen suddenly finds himself in a different world. Matters rapidly escalate into a series of life-or-death crises, which I won’t give away.
The caretaker of Faso’s mansion has a Russian wife, Ana Bini. While Signore Bini is away, she nonchalantly asks if Zen would like to go upstairs for sex. There’s something blackly humorous about the situation, especially considering that when the offer takes place, Zen is exhausted, soaking wet and bleeding from the face. Zen takes it in stride. Instead of saying “Are you fecking out of your mind?” he merely quirks a very Zen-like eyebrow, and starts grilling her for evidence in the murder case.
Rufus Sewell does an outstanding job creating the character. He underplays, giving Zen a watchful stillness. It is as though he is standing on the sidelines, wryly bemused at the bizarre tableau of human venality playing out before him. But at the right moment, he moves. It’s a wonderful contrast to the larger-than-life, satyric rascal he played in The Sea, but both characters partake of Sewell’s indefinable charisma.
The episode turns into a very satisfying thriller, with just enough action to be exciting, and plenty of unexpected twists. I am looking forward to the next two, and I leave you with one last screen cap of the beauteous Rufus.