Monday, July 25, 2011

Zen: Cabal

Masterpiece Mystery continued its love-fest with Rufus Sewell...I mean its three-part run of Zen mysteries this weekend with an episoded entitled Cabal. This episode further involves Zen in the increasingly dangerous world of political intrigue and cover-ups, where a slip-up might not just cost him his career, but his life. Here's the episode summary from the PBS website:

The dashing Roman detective Aurelio Zen is stuck in the hot seat when an important aristocratic family's disreputable son falls to his death from a bridge over the Tiber River. The powerful Ministry, to insulate itself against scandal, puts Zen on the case and demands his swift dismissal of the death as suicide. But the beautiful prosecutor Pirlo, exuding power and no shortage of allure, presses for a probing investigation...and a little something with Zen on the side.

With these cross-purposed powers breathing down his neck, Zen then learns of the Cabal, a shadowy criminal organization at the highest levels of Italian society. But Zen isn't buying conspiracy theories. He's simply trying to survive his dilemma as a pawn in a potentially sinister political game.

It's a case that demands a calm and delicate touch, and the stress is showing for Zen, even at home, where the stylish reputed maverick lives...with his mother. But he's relieving some tension in the arms of the murder squad's gorgeous secretary Tania Moretti. That is, until smug colleague Vincenzo Fabri moves in, leaving Zen in the hands of the overeager Pirlo, and a case that threatens to alienate Zen from everything — and everyone — he finds important.

Based on Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen novel, Cabal stars Rufus Sewell (Middlemarch), Caterina Murino (Casino Royale), and Stanley Townsend (Sherlock).
The episode opens with a shocking death. Umberto Ruspanti, the troubled scion of an aristocratic and well-connected family, falls from a bridge near the Tiber River to his death. Zen (Rufus Sewell) is called out to investigate in the wee hours of the morning. Poor Ruspanti's untimely demise allowed for some major Zen/Mamma (Catherine Spaak) as he gets ready to leave his apartment and discovers that his mother has made him an espresso. BESIDES the obvious fact that no man should look that good in a suit (really, where are the guys who wear suits like that?) that early in the morning, how cute was Rufus being all concerned about waking his mother up? ADORABLE. *sigh* :)

Unfortunately for Zen, Colonna (Ben Miles), the aide to Minister Guerchini (Anthony Higgins), requested Zen's presence on the case. The government wants Ruspanti's death quickly ruled a suicide and quietly hushed up, since there is fear that any investigation would raise unnecessary questions about the current government. Where there's smoke there's usually fire, no? Seriously, this whole "there's not a problem, but just in case we need THIS outcome" directive thing is a bit humorous. OF COURSE in Zen's life no investigation can be straightforward. Despite the discovery of an apparent suicide note at Ruspanti's apartment, there's the fact that the apartment was ransacked, and marks on the deceased's face indicate a struggle immediately prior to his death. Zen also discovers that Colonna's desire for a swift suicide ruling is at odds with gorgeous prosecutor Nadia Pirlo's (Cosima Shaw) desire to see Ruspanti's death further investigated. She wants Zen personally and professionally, if you catch my drift, and keeping both her and the government at bay just so he can attempt to do his job becomes a tricky balancing act.

I really love Zen's self-depracting nature and his near complete lack of self-assurance, the latter especially when it comes to his personal life. On one hand I have trouble buying the idea that a man who looks like Rufus does, who carries himself like Rufus does, who can friggin' wear a suit as well as Rufus does would have ANY insecurity issues. But the fact that Zen does have these struggles in his personal life is really part of his charm, no? :) He has this lost little boy quality, and his insecurity that someone like Tania (Caterina Murino) could be well and truly interested in him (their mutal infidelity issues aside) is just ADORABLE. And on yet another completely superficial, massive Rufus Sewell fangirl note, does he not seem like one of the best kissers ever captured on film? EVER? Because the coffee shop kiss at the beginning of the episode floored me. Floored me, I tell you.

Personally and professionally it seems like Zen is viewed as a bit of an underdog - and really wouldn't you say that's due to his rather quiet nature (which is so precious it KILLS me...I am SO easily distracted...)? The moments when someone is under-estimating Zen are some of the funniest in the film. This script has a real dry, sarcastic wit - mostly coming from Zen's character - which I just adore (since I have joked on occasion that sarcasm is my love language). *wink* Power players like Colonna and Pirlo seem to always under-estimate his intelligence and grasp of a situation - they may think they're playing him, but really they are the ones being played.

The web of intrigue surrounding Ruspanti's death gets more tangled when the man's lawyer, Gattuso (Allan Corduner) comes forward, claiming that Ruspanti was murdered because he was trying to sell the secrets of a group of powerful men. This concept is reinforced when Zen is kidnapped at gunpoint by Gianni (Hilton McRae) who claims that the Cabal, a highly secretive and powerful organization, killed Ruspanti for attempting to defect. Gianni has been living in hiding for years, and wants to help Zen expose the Cabal's secrets. Zen, however, is a little to practical for the conspiracy theories. I thought Corduner looked extraordinarily familiar - turns out he's appeared in Foyle's War, Daniel Deronda, De-Lovely, and Defiance, to name a few of his credits. And McRae might look familiar to fans of the 1999 version of Mansfield Park, as he played Mr. Price.

This issue of the Cabal - who they are, what they do, the very question of their existence - introduces an over-arching theme to the Zen series with pretty much limitless possibilities for danger and intrigue. When watching last night's episode I couldn't help but bemoan my foreknowledge of Zen's cancellation - after watching only two episodes I have to rate that a terribly short-sighted move on the BBC's part. But, looking on the bright side of things, if Zen was destined to be a one-season wonder, at least I am getting the chance to revel in what has so far been consistently high-class television. :)

In his quest to uncover the true nature of Ruspanti's death, Zen falls in with Arianna (Valentina Cervi), a high-priced call girl (or courtesan, as she prefers), who was Ruspanti's friend and sometime lover, and who has very highly-placed clients (namely Guerchini). While I think her multiple clothes-changing scene could've been shortened significantly, I will own that Zen's awkwardness at her lack of inhibitions was hilariously cute. I really liked Arianna's character - she was nice and street-smart and savvy, and I loved the fact that she and Zen seemed to fall into an easy friendship (nothing more, really!) over the course of the investigation.

This episode introduces Mara (Julie Cox), Zen's estranged wife who wants to finalize their divorce. She and Zen were so genteel when trading barbs, weren't they? Cox is a familiar face I haven't seen on-screen in ages - she appeared in an episode of The Scarlet Pimpernel film series, as well as Marple and Poirot. Since Zen and Tania's "affair" is progressing, I'm a bit relieved that they're both taking steps to finalize their splits, since that is the route they've oh-so-clearly settled on. It was interesting to see the impact of the divorce talk on Zen's psyche - he has no desire whatsoever to remain wed to Mara, but the idea of putting a "period" to that epoch in his life - a failure at that - is extremely troubling. He's a character who feels deeply, and that "unfortunate reputation for integrity" creates some moments of painful introspection.

In addition to the introduction of the shadowy Cabal, my favorite aspect of this episode was Zen's longing for Tania. Rufus Sewell just does this adorable lost puppy-dog expression thing so friggin' WELL. Vincenzo Fabri (Ed Stoppard) is still determined to bed Tania - so its rather sweetly satisfying when it's revealed that Zen's jealousy is for nothing, because Tania was playing him. And the way Zen acquires a "free" apartment for Tania in the heart of Rome is just genius. I love the way he holds that chip in reserve, so to speak. The "reveal" to Tania is just priceless. What I really loved was watching Zen watch her - Sewell's face just seems to light up from deep within, his chemistry with Murino is so on fire. And the kiss? Holy cow, two kisses like that in one episode. I die of joy, I really do. *swoon*

While this episode didn't have action sequences quite on the level of Vendetta, I loved the introduction of the Cabal - especially when it's revealed at the end of the episode that Colonna is a member and Gianni's BROTHER. Loving the drama. *wink* People, Ben Miles SHED A TEAR!

With nice little touches - like Zen conspiring with his co-worker, de Angelis (Vincent Riotta), to extend their investigation, or when he beats up a co-worker for placing crass bets after their boss, Moscati (Stanley Townsend), ends up in the hospital from a heart attack - this episode further established Zen's world and his glorious, wonderful, messed-up character. Oh, before I forget - regarding Zen's coworkers - I really want Gilberto (Francesco Quinn) to get more screentime. I'm already sorry there's only one episode left next week - this is a world I've really enjoyed spending time in. Okay fine, I admit it - this show is basically my Rufus Sewell dream-come-true. :P Full of gorgeous Italian scenery and fascinating characters, Zen has been a welcome change-of-pace for Masterpiece, and personally I've been loving it. I'd love to hear your thoughts!


Heidenkind said...

Loved it! Sewell is so smooth and hip yet his character is really vulnerable, too. It makes for a great combination. When he whispered on the phone, 'It's not going too fast for me,' I swear I melted into a puddle of goo. :)

Lori said...

Ok...I haven't watched the whole thing yet...started too late last night and had to go to bed, but it is fabulous!!! And I second the 'best kisser' title for Rufus!

Have you seen this interview? I love what he says about his approach to acting and that he's best at comedy (Shakespeare ReTold...anyone??)

Unknown said...

@heidenkind - AMEN! You said it so well, and so concisely...I just blather on and on... ;) And OMG! That moment on the phone with Tania was GOLD! I swear I was turning into a puddle of goo every 5 minutes at least... :)

@Lori - Yay! You must check in when you finish this episode. This is going to go down as one of the greatest premature TV cancellations of ALL TIME.

Lori said...

Oh yeah...I knew that in the first 10 minutes of Cabal. SO SAD!!!!

Unknown said...

@Lori - The worst television tragedy of 2011...maybe the DECADE. Maybe some people will think I'm being overly-dramatic, but the situation calls for it. :P

Lori said...

Just finished watching (yeah for working at home) and this one was brilliant!

"Ben Miles shed a tear!" I loved it!!

I'm feeling some themes for Rufus...elevators!! and courtesans (Dangerous Beauty) HA!

Unknown said...

@Lori - Elevators and courtesans? I think you're on to something there... :)

Fanny/iz4blue said...

Love your review! Surprised the elevator wasn't mentioned in your swoonfest ;-) (cue Aerosmiths' song) Rome as backdrop is as much a character, I only wish Rufus had toned down his British accent.

some of Zen's characterization is a bit predictable & I've been told he is not as dark as in the books.

The score adds to the mood & makes it so refreshing contemporary. Hence for me even more tragic it's cancellation.

Two clips that were cut for the US timeframe have appeared on YouTube btw. Zen's Facebook page has linked them.

Unknown said...

@iz4blue/Fanny - Thank you! I talked about the elevator A LOT in my Vendetta post. :)

So Rufus's accent bugged you a bit? I confess his didn't bother me as much as the clipped tones of some of the other characters - but overall it didn't distract me too much from the fabulous stories.

I'm really looking forward to revisiting this show on DVD! :)

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, and amen, sister! thanks for your great reviews. I am with you all the way on the Rufus fangirl swoonfest that this series ignited for me. I think I've worn out the "Watch online" links to these episodes on the PBS site.

Just an fyi: The actress who plays Arianna the courtesan was the lead in the excellent Italian film "Artemisia," a biopic about the artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1563 - 1639). Check it out - I think you will enjoy it.

Also note that Colonna's brother's name (who kidnapped Zen when he went out to buy tomatoes) turned out to be Massimo--the MOC (Massimo Colonna)on the back of the photo of the two young boys and his brother being Amadeo Colonna - the AOC on the back of the photo and in Ruspanti's appointment diary.

That's one of the delights of this series--I had to keep thinking and thinking afterward to piece all these little clues together.

Mix the mystery with Rufus's expressions (SUCH a fine actor), vulnerability, gorgeousness (yikes, the suits!), and chemistry with Caterina, top off with the sundrenched atmosphere (I adore Rome--have been there several times), and add the tasty dollop of fresh music just cheesy enough in parts to make you smile, and you've got the best TV show that was ever canceled too soon.

Unknown said...

@Anon (Not sure if you logged in with a name, but it didn't come through if so!) - Thank you so much for your wonderful comment! And you're welcome too! :) One of the great things about blogging is meeting other (in this case, Rufus) fangirls. :)

Thanks so much for the 'Artemisia' movie rec. I will have to check it out.

You are so right about the delights of this series being "the little things" that make the mysteries so wonderfully LAYERED. Rufus is just icing on the cake. ;)

Are you a Masterpiece Mystery fan? I'm looking forward to the return of Inspector Lewis in a few weeks!

Anonymous said...

Just had to add a P.S. that
--my name is cricketgirl...not sure why it didn't come across here...just a string of characters...
--thanks for mentioning your discomfort with the goings on despite their marital status...I too was mulling that over...
--I too was FLOORED by that kiss in the coffee shop AND the humor when she says she really wants to have sex with him and he says quasi-politely in the middle of all that steamy passion, "Thanks very much...very kind of you." CARAMBA!!!

Unknown said...

@cricketgirl - Blogger must be acting weird. :P Ay caramba indeed! LOVE this show, miss it terribly already. *sigh* Thanks again for sharing your thoughts! :)