Wed
Jul 27 2011 5:00pm

Zen: Cabal aka The Roman Way

Rufus Sewell as Aurelio Zen on Masterpiece Mystery/ WGBHOur friend Aurelio Zen, he of the stylish suits and Persol shades, seems to hit his stride in “Cabal,” the second episode of Zen on Masterpiece Mystery. If you were lukewarm about “Vendetta” (Episode 1) as I was, you might want to come back for another taste this week. The mystery is more intriguing and the scenery more divine. Although perhaps not as divine as the scenery in the Michael Dibdin novel on which “Cabal” is based.

The opening scene of the TV episode involves a young aristocrat plunging to his death from a bridge over the Tiber. In the book, the character takes his tumble from the top of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Either way, we’re firmly in Rome now, and that’s a step in the right direction.

The cabal of the title is a secret society whose members include power brokers of all stripes—wealthy businessmen, scions of old-money families, government officials and, as one character notes, “very highly placed members of the Church.” (Publication of Dibdin’s novel predated The Da Vinci Code by 11 years, if you’re wondering.) For reasons that are both complicated and unclear in the screenplay, some individuals in positions of authority want the aristocrat’s death to be ruled a suicide while others insist it be treated as a murder. Zen, the investigating detective, is caught in the middle.

It’s an interesting plot with a decent payoff at the end. There’s a stronger sense of place and of the interconnectedness of lives in the big city this time around. And it’s beautiful to behold.

Aurelio Zen Strolls Rome /WGBH

I realize that the apartments in “Cabal” probably are as analogous to actual Rome apartments as the apartments in a Woody Allen film are to actual New York apartments—that is, they reflect a particular sort of reality that does exist, but only for a precious few people. Nevertheless, the interiors on display this week almost made me forget about the wardrobe, and that’s saying something.

Still, “Cabal” has its problems.

The mood of the episode swings from sinister to cynical so quickly that a viewer isn’t quite sure what to take seriously.

In one moment on a dark street a mysterious, desperate man accosts Zen, forces him to drive to a near-deserted spot and informs him in urgent tones about the cabal. In the next moment, Zen’s back at home where his mother is miffed that he missed dinner. “I’m sorry Mamma,” he deadpans, “I was kidnapped at gunpoint by a paranoid conspiracy theorist.” Thing is, based on what has already occurred, we believe the mysterious man and we know Zen does too. Why so glib, Aurelio?

Zen with Alfa Romeo Spider S4, another Italian beauty/ WGBHThere’s a La Dolce Vita lightness to the scenes between Zen and Arianna, a sly and well-connected… she prefers the term “courtesan”—played by Valentina Cervi. Snappy banter, a cherry red Alfa Romeo Spider S4 (a hot topic on the alfaowner.com forum) and fishnet stockings (ditto) come into play, and suddenly we’re in freewheeling Roma.

(Go to PBS.org to watch Rufus Sewell discussing the style of the series and the danger of looking too cool.  More videos there, plus Ed Stoppard for you Upstairs, Downstairs fans.)

 Then—bang!—people are in danger, or dying, or in danger of dying; Zen’s back to being Mr. Integrity and the fun is over.

 Which brings us to two more quibbles that linger from the first episode:

Everyone remarks on Zen’s reputation for integrity. At least two characters in “Cabal” use those precise words: “reputation for integrity.” So why, I have to ask, does everyone try to corrupt him? Why not just bring in a dirty cop to facilitate your cover-up? There certainly seem to be enough of them. What’s so special about Zen?

Ah, right… He’s Venetian…

The discussion always begins with a comment about his last name. It’s unusual, someone says.

“It’s Venetian,” is the inevitable reply.

So what? I ask.

Henning Mankell’s Detective Wallander is plagued by the fact that he works in Ystad, a small city in southern Sweden, and not in Stockholm. This diminishes him in his own estimation and in the eyes of others—as they remind him regularly. It’s one reason he’s the way he is.

As sexy as these shades are, they look better on Zen.Yet, with Zen, we never have the sense that he’s out of his element, that his habits are different or that there’s any particular rivalry or animosity between Romans and Venetians.

As for the reason he moved from Venice to Rome, since the screenplays haven’t made it clear I’ll guess it’s because the pay at the Questura di Roma is phenomenal. How else could he afford those sunglasses?

Zen wraps up next week with “Ratking.”  You can always find the latest Masterpiece Mystery coverage at our feature page.


Leslie Gilbert Elman blogs intermittently at My Life in Laundry. She’s written two trivia books and has a few unpublished fiction manuscripts in the closet to keep the skeletons company.

 

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6 comments
Terrie Farley Moran
1. Terrie
Thanks for this frank discussion. I have realized that Zen just isn't for me.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
2.
Rufus Sewell running around loose in Rome? What's not to like? I mean, he's put on some years since Cold Comfort Farm; but I am seriously not objecting.
In one moment on a dark street a mysterious, desperate man accosts Zen, forces him to drive to a near-deserted spot and informs him in urgent tones about the cabal. In the next moment, Zen’s back at home where his mother is miffed that he missed dinner. “I’m sorry Mamma,” he deadpans, “I was kidnapped at gunpoint by a paranoid conspiracy theorist.” Thing is, based on what has already occurred, we believe the mysterious man and we know Zen does too. Why so glib, Aurelio?
Because a false conspiracy theory is inherently less dangerous than a true one, and he doesn't want to worry his mother. Also, knowing such things would be dangerous for her.
Leslie Gilbert Elman
3. Leslie Gilbert Elman
@tnh Have you read the Zen books? I confess I haven't. After watching these two episodes I have the sense there's a lot more we should know about these characters - Zen's mother, for example - that isn't made clear in the show. Why, for instance, would knowing about a conspiracy theory be dangerous for her?

I have no problem with Rufus Sewell or any of the cast (except maybe the woman who plays the mother). I wish they had better stories to work with. It seems like the plots have been boiled down too much.

@Terrie Hang on... Inspector Lewis is coming.
4. melita
I wondered a bit about Zen's integrity, or appearance of integrity, myself. It does make the investigation seem aboveboard. The higher-ups have the appearance of wanting the crime solved. I'm more bemused by the fact that for someone with his reputation for integrity, he's not above asking for substantial favors.

Both plots so far have seemed...overly complicated. I'm sure it's better in the novels. I do prefer Inspectore Guido Brunetti (another Venetian, written by Donna Leon).
Leslie Gilbert Elman
6. Leslie Gilbert Elman
@melita - Good points. I've read comments and reviews making the case that the corrupt higher-ups want Zen involved because he'll make their schemes appear to be legitimate. Objectively that makes sense, but I'm not sure I buy it in this series. And I agree that the way Zen trades favors doesn't qualify as a sign of integrity. Then again, it gives us something to talk about.
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