BBC Video // 2011 // 265 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // August 11th, 2011
"If something were to go wrong, I have a feeling my superiors would very much prefer if it was me who got killed." -- Aurelio Zen
Aurelio Zen (Rufus Sewell, The Pillars of the Earth) has a reputation for honesty. He's trying to live it down, because he's in Rome, where that's not a good trait for a copper, at least in Michael Dibdin's novels. Zen introduces Dibdin's detective, who actually solves the cases, more or less, but isn't above getting a rival transferred to Sicily or scoring an expensive bottle of wine for a job well done.
Zen features three 90-minute movies on two discs...
"It's important you know why I'm going to kill you."
Tito Spadola knocks off a judge and his driver, calmly telling the judge he's going after the other men who sent him away, including Aurelio Zen. Meanwhile, Zen investigates a recanted murder confession after being called to a shadowy meeting by a minister's rep.
"Remember, detective, all knowledge is power."
Zen's first realization at the scene of an apparent suicide is that the man went splat on the pavement instead of jumping into the river. His second realization is that the first realization may be unhealthy; the minister's man is on the scene, too.
"So do you have much experience in hostage negotiations?"
"No, none at all."
The lawyer who tried to pay the ransom first was killed, and the money stolen. Zen's forced to make the drop -- with ransom money, a no-no in Italy. He could end up in jail and off the force.
In "Zen: An Italian Adventure," which accompanies the movies, the team behind the show says Zen has a '60s feel, comparing it to Hitchcock movies and ITC adventures like The Saint. True, Zen does have the same sort of cool look and feel; the first time you see Rufus Sewell in suit and sunglasses walking briskly across a busy Roman street, a jazzy score in the background, you might make the comparison. However, Sewell's Zen is a little bit different. There's a hesitation and uncertainty in his voice as he makes his cases; there's usually something left out to please higher-ups, but even the parts that are true don't ring in his delivery. Women fall for Zen like they fell for Simon Templar, but his gentlemanly nature is expressed with an awkward nervousness. When his new boss tells a crowd that Zen isn't competent enough to handle a hostage deal, the detective is the first to agree.
Zen's hesitance is natural, since any important case comes with a visit from the minister's man, who never seems to want the same outcome as Zen's boss or the aggressive prosecutor. As Zen points out to his girlfriend (Caterina Murino, Casino Royale), the "or else" comes up a lot -- from all sides. He also has trouble in the office, since the detectives are more interested in betting on who sleeps with the newly divorced secretary first (Zen, as it turns out) than in cases, and a loyal colleague is one who would only betray "if he had to." Conversations dance around most topics, so Zen has to read between the many lines from many writers to figure out his task.
Sewell's dry, self-deprecating wit is a perfect match for the character, and he remains likeable despite Zen's general weasel-ness. You'll note that few actual Italian accents are heard, since almost all of the cast is British. Sewell's performance and the sharp dialogue sell that unreality, though.
The best of the stories is Ratking, which comes complete with a strange wealthy family, a suspension for Zen, some clever maneuvers by Zen to avoid jail time, and roguish behavior by Zen. The first two movies are fun, but spend a lot of time establishing the situation and characters. This one just flies -- and soars.
The beautiful houses and busy streets of Rome look great here. Zen has a fast pace and a mostly bright look (except for some "modern noir" shots, as the production team calls them). Dialogue and music come through well.
"Zen: An Italian Adventure" has some self-promotion to it, but provides information about the series and its production. It also tells too much about one of the episodes, so wait until you've seen the movies to check it out.
At times, it feels like Zen spends more time withering under the glares of important people than solving cases. With Zen's tendency toward intentionally ignoring inconvenient details, you might be left unsatisfied with the resolutions. If you prefer a straightforward mystery, this might not be for you.
I've also noticed that two of the three opening murders on Zen take place under the noses of surveillance teams.
Zen was seen recently on Masterpiece Mystery on PBS, so you might wait to see if it turns up on TV again.
I liked Sewell's performance, the production's emphasis on Roman scenery, and the dialogue. However, the first two movies spend a little too much time on secret meetings in cars and the like. With two conflicting answers, how do I rule?
Well...um, not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 265 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated