You just can’t help feeling sorry for Aurelio Zen. A Venetian by birth, living and working in Rome as a homicide detective, he has always put honesty before advancement. While this may be an admirable trait, it hasn’t exactly done wonders for his career in the Roman police force. As a government minister aptly puts it, “Your scruples do you credit, Detective, but really, it’s no way to get ahead, is it?”
Zen is a three-part mini-series, based on the celebrated mysteries by Michael Dibdin. Originally produced by the BBC in 2010, it was broadcast as part of Masterpiece Mystery over here in the U.S. Each hour and a half episode is based on one book and features a different mystery. Vendetta begins with the cold-blooded murder of a judge on a country road outside Milan. Back in Rome, Zen, played by the enigmatic and exceptional Rufus Sewell, finds himself stuck between a rock and a hard place. Thanks to his “reputation for scrupulous integrity,” he’s been tapped by a government minister to prove the “innocence” of a businessman with friends in high places, who has been indicted for a triple homicide. But at the same time, his gruff, no-nonsense boss at the Questura demands he close up the holes in the case and prove the police have arrested the right man. What’s a detective to do?
Cabal, the second episode in the series, feature the apparent suicide of an Italian nobleman. This time, both the Questura and the Ministry are happy for this death to be neatly wrapped up as such, but, unfortunately for Zen, he’s convinced the man was murdered. In the third episode, Rat King, Zen is tasked with rescuing a wealthy industrialist, who has been kidnapped, and finding out why the man sent to pay the ransom was inexplicably shot dead in the street.
All career problems aside, things aren’t exactly going well for Aurelio Zen at home either. His marriage has failed, his wife wants a divorce, and he’s back living at home with his mamma, even though he’s almost forty. But somehow, Zen manages to juggle the competing demands of his conscience, the Questura, and the Ministry. Each time he finds himself in an impossible situation, up against systemic bureaucratic corruption and civil servants who give new meaning to the word “oblique,” he manages to land on his feet, like a cat with nine lives. But is it skill or sheer dumb luck? For me, the jury is still out. Sewell plays Zen with just the right dose of cynicism and wry humor, even as he finds himself entangled in a web of deceit, politics, and corruption.
The series was shot entirely in Rome and the city is as much a character in the story as Zen, his colleagues, or the criminals. But this isn’t meant to be a tourist promotional video of Rome and the directors made a point to film in areas that are not so familiar to British and American audiences. One such place is the EUR – a residential and business district just south of the city center, begun by Mussolini and famous for its fascist architecture. This is the Rome where pedestrians block traffic, that is crowded, infuriating, and crumbling around the edges. But don’t worry; there are still plenty of sporty little Fiats racing around the city and men in slick, stylish suits with the requisite skinny ties and snazzy sunglasses.
Zen is a very stylish, compelling and intelligent drama – it feels like a Hitchcock adventure, but with a modern noir feel, where the stakes are high, but the story is still delivered with a great deal of wit and wry humor.
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