His Name is Zen, Aurelio Zen: Vendetta

Rufus Sewell as Aurelio Zen and Caterina Murino as Tania Moretti/ BBC for Masterpiece
Rufus Sewell as Aurelio Zen and Caterina Murino as Tania Moretti/ BBC for Masterpiece
If Rufus Sewell wasn’t on the most recent short list for the role of James Bond, someone in casting wasn’t doing her homework. Sewell is charming and rugged in the Sean Connery mold, with a perfect knowing twinkle in his eye. Plus he’s intimately familiar with the text—it’s Sewell’s voice you hear on the audio versions of Casino Royale (did someone say audition tape?) and a dozen or so other Ian Fleming Bond books. (Anglophiles take note: Sewell also read Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews for a British audio publisher.)

Instead, Sewell plays Aurelio Zen in the next three episodes of Masterpiece Mystery, based on the Aurelio Zen novels by the late Michael Dibdin. And I sigh, but perhaps not for the reason you think.

The first Zen episode is “Vendetta.” It will be followed by “Cabal” and “Ratking.” Now before we go any further: Yes, Dibdin fans, you’re right; the published sequence of the novels was Ratking, Vendetta and Cabal. Why the producers chose to present them in a different order is an excellent question—one of many I have about this series.

Question #1: Where can I register a complaint about the reckless disregard for the safety and welfare of Italian menswear? Innocent suits were harmed in the making of these films.

When Zen debuted in the U.K. earlier this year, Tom Sutcliffe, writing in The Independent described it as “feature-length adaptations of Michael Dibdin’s admired novels about a Rome detective who, on this evidence, works in the Couture Investigation Department, a branch entirely staffed by male models in excellent suits.”

Indeed, every reviewer has remarked on what the Zen gents are wearing. I can’t recall a TV show since Miami Vice that has prompted such a reaction.

Rufus Sewell as Aurelio Zen
My face will heal, but my drycleaner will never forgive me /WGBH
Question #1a: Is that good?

Well, let’s see…

What would you make of the fact that during the pivotal chase scene in “Vendetta,” I found myself cringing at the state of Zen’s suit. Then I wondered what would actually happen to a designer suit if you wore it underwater. Also, Zen was bleeding all over his lovely white shirt and his silk tie would certainly be ruined.

Would you say the story didn’t hold my attention?

Question #2: What is the story?

Ostensibly there are two. The vendetta of the title refers to revenge killings plotted by convicted murderer Tito Spadola. After assassinating his trial judge, Spadola (played by Peter Guinness) announces Aurelio Zen is also on his hit list. Not so ominous when you know Zen will be back in another episode next week. Fire away, Spadola, your bullets can’t hurt our hero. Even Zen doesn’t seem overly concerned when he and Spadola finally meet.

The other story involves a shady businessman shot in his home by an intruder. His business associate, Renato Favelloni (played by Greg Wise), has confessed to the crime, but Favelloni’s court testimony could reveal some details that certain government ministers would prefer remain unrevealed. They enlist Zen to reopen the investigation to see if, perhaps, he can produce a more suitable murderer.

Eventually, the two stories intersect in a way that is, to be kind, unsatisfying, and to be harsh, preposterous. The government minister played by Ben Miles also has nice suits.

Rufus Sewell as Aurelio Zen/ WGBH
Like many of us, Zen thinks better near pastry. / WGBH

Question #3: Why do they look Italian (sort of) but talk English?

This was a big gripe against Zen when it aired in the U.K. and I understand why. You can pump in all the espresso you like, but your attempt at creating an Italian ambience is shattered the moment Zen’s boss gripes about penny-pinching politicians trying to “cuh ahr boodjit.” That’s no fault of the wonderful Stanley Townsend who plays Zen’s superior, Moscati. Nor can you blame Rufus Sewell (whose voice is just fine the way it is, thank you) or any of the other British and Irish actors. No one was instructed to channel Marcello Mastroianni for his role.

Fair enough. But what about the women? For the most part, they are Italian, reportedly because the British casting directors couldn’t find any British actresses who could convincingly fill the roles. (Interpret that as you will.) Not to take anything away from Caterina Murino who plays Zen’s love interest Tania Moretti. She’s lovely. But the effect of dueling accents is dizzying. My rewind button needs time to recover.

Question #4: Why do I sigh?

There’s so much about Zen that should make it terrific—the actors, the locations, the opportunity to explore the intricacies of the Italian political and judicial systems. Yet, it’s not terrific. The best I can say is, it’s Bond-light.


Rumor has it “Cabal” will be better. I wonder what they’ll be wearing.


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.


  1. Leslie Gilbert Elman

    Have you read the Zen books? Please tell me how closely the Vendetta episode follows the novel.

  2. Lois Karlin

    I’m looking forward to catching at least part of this series. I couldn’t care less about the suits…it’s those eyes. Yet I’ve never found his performances outstanding. He does need a great role–Bond would have been perfect–to see whether he measures up.

  3. Leslie Gilbert Elman

    Rufus Sewell has charisma and the suits don’t hurt. 🙂 I think he does the best he can with Zen, I just wish the Vendetta plot had been more challenging. The stakes are too low, IMHO.

  4. Terrie Farley Moran

    Leslie, after reading this article I decided to watch Vendetta. (I had DVR’d it. ) The plot was very thin and I guess it’s because I’m in America but I couldn’t get comfortable with most of the (few) female characters having Italian accents while the male characters all have British accents. Not sure I’ll watch “Cabal.” Maybe I’ll DVR it and wait to see what you have to say about it. BTW, sorry, I never read the books.

  5. Leslie Gilbert Elman

    Terrie – The PBS website for Zen on Masterpiece
    has a few behind-the-scenes videos. In one of them, an executive producer mentioned that the screenwriter was able to “hammer the multiple plots (from the book) with huge efficiency.” He said that like it was a good thing, but I wonder…

    Maybe the screenwriter was forced to boil down everything too much and the books are richer.

    This is the Zen website – it has recipes from Lidia Bastianich on it too!
    (And that’s why I love PBS.)

  6. Lucy Carter

    I recently discovered Zen on ABC in Australia and I am so disappointed that there isn’t a second season. I agree that Rufus channels James Bond to perfection. It was so refreshing to see a crime thriller that is set in Italy with character like Zen. I think the head of the BBC must have had a blindfold over his eyes to the potential of this program. Zen has cinema quality and with any luck we haven’t seen the last of Aurelio Zen…

  7. Leslie Gilbert Elman

    Lucy, if you’re craving mysteries set in Italy read the Zen books by Michael Dibdin. After watching the show, I picked up Cabal. Now I’m reading Dead Lagoon, which is set in Venice. They’re much better than the teleplays – more complex, more original. The TV series did them a disservice by changing almost everything about them. Also try the Inspector Montalbano books by Andrea Camilleri.

    I agree that Zen had potential as a TV series, but it wasn’t executed nearly as well as it should have been given the original material.

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