Monday, July 18, 2011

Zen: Vendetta

How much fun was this, people? :)

Zen began its three-week run on Masterpiece Mystery last night with its first episode entitled Vendetta. Seeing as I am a rabid Rufus Sewell fangirl, I was predisposed to like this series - it also had in its favor that it shares much of the same production team that brought six superb episodes of the Kenneth Branagh vehicle Wallander to Masterpiece Mystery in previous seasons. Happily Vendetta delivered on all fronts, providing me with a heckuvalot of fodder for my Rufus Sewell obsession as well as a fast-paced, entertaining storyline and gorgeous, absolutely beautiful Italian scenery. Here's the episode summary from the PBS website:

Meet Zen. He has an unusual (Venetian) name and, in the shark tank of Roman politics, has an even more unusual reputation — as an honest detective. Aurelio Zen, the sometimes cool, sometimes bumbling, but always impeccably stylish murder squad detective is saddled with an "unfortunate" reputation for integrity, and it hasn't exactly helped his career. Nor is his personal life thriving. In spite of advances from female suspects as and colleagues alike, he is pushing 40 and living with his doting mother after a failed marriage.

But Zen is handed a chance to play politics and salvage his career when a debauched billionaire construction magnate is murdered in his heavily fortified mountain retreat. Zen is driven to find something it seems only he wants — the truth. Well, the truth and the murder squad's new secretary, Tania Moretti.
Meanwhile, a vengeful killer is making his way to Rome, brutally executing those who sent him away to prison for murder. The final target of his vendetta: Aurelio Zen.

Adapted from Michael Dibdin's acclaimed crime novel Vendetta and from the producers of Wallander, Zen stars Rufus Sewell (Middlemarch), Caterina Murino (Casino Royale), and Ed Stoppard (Upstairs Downstairs).
First things first: Rufus Sewell was MADE to play a role like Aurelio Zen. Smart, stylish, charismatic, yet at the same time adorably, boyishly unsure of himself, he owns the screen every time his character appears (which, thankfully for me, is in nearly every frame of film). :) Similarly to Wallander, Zen is a character burdened by a drive to get the job right - only in Aurelio's case he handles the setbacks his predisposition for honesty and absolute forthrightness have handed him both personally a professionally (seemingly, anyway) better than his Swedish counterpart.

Vendetta opens with the first of two cases that will intersect in unexpected ways as Zen's investigations progress. A high-court judge is ambushed in the Italian countryside by a now-terminally ill ex-con (on compassionate release), Tito Spadola (Peter Guinness) and his son Pepe (Gregg Chillin), who are determined to hunt down and kill the men responsible for sending Tito to prison for a murder he didn't commit years earlier - including one unsuspecting Aurelio Zen. (Never mind that Tito isn't exactly as pure as the driven snow to begin with, or that he really doesn't have a good grasp on the concept that two wrongs don't make a right - it's all about nuance, people, nuance.) Guinness played a small role as the Coroner in Bleak House, while interestingly enough Chillin apparently plays the role of Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter videogames. Guinness, especially, does a superb job playing the unhinged, driven ex-convict determined to exact vengeance against those who wronged him - he's suitably cold-blooded and intense, a great villain for this type of story.

Meanwhile, Zen arrives at police headquarters in Rome, and with just a look as only Rufus Sewell can give we see just how smitten he is with his boss's new secretary, the gorgeous Tania Moretti (Caterina Murino). Murino should be familiar to fans of James Bond films, as she played the ill-fated Solange opposite Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. Zen might not quite have down how to talk to Tania, but thank goodness he's classy enough not to participate in the office pool betting on who will sleep with her first (*sigh*). Moscati (Stanley Townsend), Zen's superior, informs him that they've been called to the Ministry for a pre-trial review of the evidence in the case of a murdered influential billionaire Oscar Faso (Alessandro Cica) and his call-girl "house guests." Minister Geurchini (Anthony Higgins) and his aide, Colonna (Ben Miles), want the case against the prime suspect (and Faso's business partner) Favelloni (Greg Wise) locked up tight, despite the lack of hard evidence and a sloppy investigation by the local police. Ed Stoppard is also introduced as Zen's workplace thorn, the oily, self-assured Vincenzo Fabri. Stoppard was seen earlier this year as Sir Hallam in the Masterpiece re-boot of Upstairs Downstairs.

The introduction of Zen's workplace introduces a slew of familiar faces. Stanley Townsend does an excellent job portraying Zen's gregarious, stressed-out supervisor, and if he looks familiar you might be a fan of Sherlock or Foyle's War. Anthony Higgins made a fairly recent appearance on the blog when I reviewed the Marple episode The Secret of Chimneys (my review). I vastly prefer Higgins's portrayal of a sauve Italian diplomat than a faux Herzoslovakian count. *wink* Ben Miles as his aide, Colonna, should be quite a familiar face to fans of period drama - he's appeared in the Marple episode A Pocket Full of Rye (my review), Lark Rise to Candleford, and Under the Greenwood Tree. As Colonna, Miles just exudes danger, a politician who'll do whatever it takes to achieve his goals, and I look forward to seeing how Colonna's somewhat strained interactions with Zen develop over the course of this series. And finally, I was thrilled to see Greg Wise as prime suspect #1 Favelloni, who "finds God" in prison and recants his "forced" confession, to the government's everlasting chagrin. Wise has been a favorite of mine ever since his unforgettable turn as Willoughby in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility. More recently he appeared in Cranford. I never would've imagined Wise playing an Italian, but with his lean good looks and sauve manners he acquits himself with aplomb in this episode.

In a nutshell, Moscati wants Zen to ensure Favelloni's conviction, Colonna wants Zen to prove Favelloni's innocence, otherwise the businessman might reveal unsavory secrets about his dealings with the current government, and he has to avoid getting killed by Tito & company. For help in unraveling the tangled mess of his professional life, Zen turns to a former associate now working in the private sector, Gilberto Nieddu (Francesco Quinn). If Quinn looked familiar, it turns out he's the son of legendary actor Anthony Quinn, who also did a stint on 24 (back in 2003 when I still watched that show).

At this point I feel the need to just break off and discuss various points of Rufus Sewell-related awesomeness in this episode. So if you'll indulge me... :)

  • Zen gets offended when the Minister & his aide comment on his reputation for scrupulous honesty. Disturbing questions aside that this moment raises about the Italian justice system, isn't Rufus's faux outrage adorable?
  • Zen wears Armani suits and lives with his Mamma (Catherine Spaak). Only someone who looks like Rufus Sewell and is all attentive and solicitous as only he can be is capable of making this work, nevermind APPEALING. *wink*
  • When Tania asks for Zen's help in fabricating an excuse to leave her (presumably) overbearing husband for the evening, he gets so worried when she doesn't answer the phone that he drives to her apartment building (so sweet!). Then, when he drops her off at a bar and sees her leave shortly thereafter with a guy (who turns out to be a gay best friend), HE BANGS HIS HEAD AGAINST THE STEERING WHEEL. I don't think I can begin to fully articulate how perfect that moment was. *swoon*
  • Zen can wake up in a cold sweat from a bad dream, retch in the bathroom sink, and then don a sharp suit and slurp down espresso, all while allaying his mother's concerns. Rufus Sewell should look into patenting this highly effective retch-to-heartwarming pivot thing. He has it down.
  • After Zen and Tania have after-hours drinks and share a sort of His Girl Friday moment, he kisses her goodbye on the cheek. Check that, BOTH cheeks. Excuse me while I swoon, again.
More on Rufus later...this is an ongoing theme, obviously.

Filmed on location in Italy, besides Rufus Sewell's presence the film's gorgeous scenery and architecture are some of its biggest strengths. The film is saturated with warmth and color and history that adds a wonderfully exotic, intoxicating atmosphere to the storyline. Perhaps one of this episode's biggest draws is that it just feels so different from the normal mystery program Masterpiece airs (never underestimate the power of something new, hmm?). One of my favorite scenes is the episode's most harrowing - when Zen follows the itinerant girl Lucia into the network of caves that lead into Faso's mansion and is carried deep underground, lost in the watery maze. I don't know that I'm outright clausterphobic, but tight spaces aren't my favorite thing in the world, and that scene was tense, suspensful, and well-constructed. (And only Rufus could come out of that scenario battered and bloodied and still looking remarkably well put-together.)

I will confess that until reading the episode summary I had a little trouble keeping all of the characters' names straight and following some of the finer plot points as they unfolded. I attribute some of that to the mix of British and Italian actors, the latter with heavier accents, and PBS trimming potential five-plus minutes of the episode runtime for commercials (as is their norm for Masterpiece broadcasts, unfortunately). It probably goes without saying, but I'm looking forward to reviewing this episode on DVD.

It's probably hard to believe that I could find more to gush about, but really this episode does deliver the proverbial icing on the cake in spades. SPADES, I tell you! This episode ends with Zen and Tania passionately kissing in the elevator, and in case you're new to this blog I'm a big fan of Rufus Sewell in elevators (for prior evidence see the ShakespeaRe-Told adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew - my review). People, Rufus Sewell in an elevator makes my heart sing. MY HEART SINGS, I TELL YOU! (Yes, I can be that shallow. Indulge me and let me revel in it for a bit, please? *wink*).

Sewell and Murino have off-the-charts chemistry, and while I'd certainly prefer that  Zen was officially divorced, and not pursuing a relationship with a married woman, I can only say that when watching this show I was just seeing  Rufus being amazing, and wishing I was Tania. SHALLOW WISH FULFILLMENT, yes people, you read that right. :P

Zen proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable film, an intriguing blend of mystery, political drama, and humor, with a dash of old-school sensibility that recalls the Sean Connery-era James Bond films or the Roger Moore-helmed adventure show The Saint. (Adrian Johnston's quirky, sunny score really reinforces the "throwback" feel of the episode.) And with Rufus Sewell being freaking fantastic, it's a guaranteed bet I'll be tuning in next week. If you watched Zen's debut, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Exit Question: Can a post contain "too many" Rufus Sewell-as-Zen photos? (Think carefully before you reply in the negative...) *wink*

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