Monday, August 1, 2011

Zen: Ratking

Zen (sadly, tragically!) concluded its wildly entertaining three-week run on Masterpiece Mystery with perhaps the most interesting mystery yet. And while the end of the episode left me longing for more, if the show had to get canceled (silly BBC!) it ended on perhaps the best possible note - it left me wanting more, and left my new favorite smoldering sleuth in a very good place. Be warned, this post is apt to be long and rambling and ALL over the place. :) Here's the episode summary of Ratking from the PBS website:

There's a new boss on the murder squad, Ernesto Hueber, and to his position he's brought an ironclad Code of Conduct, an antagonistic relationship with the powers that be and a bitter contempt for Zen. No "fraternizing" with coworkers and no freedom to define and skirt his own boundaries means certain noncompliance for Zen. Between his growing relationship with Tania and a new morally ambiguous case handed to him by the Ministry, Zen now must navigate the potential minefields of the girlfriend, the boss and the law.

To pay a kidnapping ransom is illegal in Italy. But that is exactly what Zen is tasked with by the Ministry when the head of the powerful Miletti family is kidnapped and his lawyer is murdered during the ransom drop. With his rival Fabri on the case and a mysterious stranger on his tail, Zen is poised to take a fall. Will the feisty Venetian find a slippery solution to his high-stakes dilemma, or is he finally out of luck?

Based on Michael Dibdin's bestselling Aurelio Zen novel, Ratking stars Rufus Sewell (Middlemarch), Caterina Murino (Casino Royale), and Ed Stoppard (Upstairs Downstairs).
Ratking opens with the murder of a middle-aged lawyer, Francesco Pirotta (Franco Maria Salamon), shot to death after delivering a briefcase full of ransom money - an activity that, no matter how well-intentioned, is illegal in Italy. Pirotta was the lawyer of the powerful and influential Miletti family (living proof that the extremely rich really ARE different from the rest of us), whose patriarch Ruggerio had been kidnapped several days before. The family was attempting to deal with the kidnappers on their own and without involving the police, since to do so would see their monetary assets frozen by the government to prevent things like disastrous ransom drops.

Thanks to the Ministry's interest in his career, it's a foregone conclusion that Zen (Rufus Sewell) is assigned this nightmare-in-the-making of a case. The "patronage" of Minister Geurchini (Anthony Higgins) and his aide Amedeo Colonna (Ben Miles) only make Zen's standing at work increasingly untenable. Since his biggest advocate and boss, Moscati (Stanley Townsend) has been sidelined thanks to a heart attack, the department has a new and extremely strict superior - Ernesto Heuber (Michael McElhatton). Heuber institutes a "no inter-office affairs" policy and takes an immediate dislike to what he views as Zen's publicity-seeking ways thanks to the coverage of his recent case successes.

This episode is packed with the sly humor that is just one of the many (many, MANY) factors that make Zen such a compelling character. Time after time a government official, coworker, or member of the Miletti family question Zen's judgment or make disparaging remarks about his capabilities, and he doesn't say a word and just walks off. He doesn't have to do anything else - that's the beauty of Sewell's portrayal. All it takes is a look, an expression, the quirk of an eyebrow, and Sewell conveys a wealth of information without uttering a syllable. GENIUS. SOMEBODY HAND THE MAN AN EMMY.

I'm perhaps biased by some warped personal preference, but if a mystery story centers on a highly dysfunctional family like the Milettis, I am predisposed to love it. When Zen goes to interview the Miletti family, he first meets the arrogant second-in-command Carlo Fagioli (Callum Blue), who married the boss's ice queen daughter Cinzia (Sarah-Jane Potts). I loved Blue in the made-for-TV World War II-era film In Love and War. He was a big part of the reason I saw Princess Diaries 2 in theaters (yes, really), and most recently he played a critical role in the three-part "Kali" storyline on my beloved sci-fi show Sanctuary. Blue seems to relish playing a selfish, obnoxious character like Carlo, and frankly it's fun to watch him in this setting (the sharp suit he sports is just an added bonus). The essence of his character is perhaps best-highlighted in his RUDE dismissal of a nun (Katie Murphy) seeking charity assistance for her order's orphanage ministry. Potts, meanwhile, is notable mainly for her extraordinary and disturbing ability to convey her fixation with her on-screen brother, Silvio, and her art-deco style haircut.

Silvio is played by Sebastien Armesto, who should be a familiar face to Masterpiece fans. Armesto played Edmund Sparkler in Little Dorrit (and was hilarious!), Mr. Haslam in Bright Star, and King Ferdinand VI in the latest Pirates film. Silvio is your stereotypical debauched aristocrat with major daddy issues, a disappointment to a powerful father and, quite frankly, a disaster waiting to happen. You know things are going to go badly, very badly for his character when he shows up wearing a lavender shirt and a pink coat and pouts. *wink*

Ed Stoppard finally justifies his presence in this series as Zen's personal and professional rival, Vincenzo Fabri. When Zen specifically requests Giorgio de Angelis (Vincent Riotta) as back-up, Heuber takes the opportunity to exercise his authority by sending in Fabri instead, who does such a pathetically obvious job of sucking up to Zen that its laughable. Much to Zen's chagrin, Fabri is good friends with the Miletti family, complicating case. There is this hilarious exchange when Fabri suggests quite seriously that they bungle the case in order to disgrace Heuber - Zen's look of speechless incredulity was so pitch-perfect it just cracked me up. Sewell has a real gift for understatement. :)

Matters are further complicated when the lawyer's widow, Donatella (Zoe Tapper) goes public with the case, claiming to want justice for her husband. Tapper has appeared in a variety of Masterpiece programs, including Foyle's War, Jericho, and Miss Marple, as well as playing the role of Mina Harker in the short-lived series Demons. Donatella suggests that the Milettis orchestrated her husband's murder because he knew their secrets. Her outrage is so seethingly palpable and fake that it really made me appreciate the twist the storyline takes when Zen discovers the truth about Donatella's relationship with a Miletti family scion. This story is jam-packed with twists and turns and double-crosses that make watching the relationships unravel on-screen absolutely fascinating viewing.

One of the biggest draws of this series for me has been the complex portrayal of Zen's personal relationships, namely with his girlfriend Tania (Caterina Murino) and his Mamma (Catherine Spaak). While I hate the fact that Zen & Tania's relationship kicks into high gear while they're both still technically married, I'm not gonna lie on a purely fangirl level I adore Sewell and Murino on-screen. Their chemistry is electric and the pair truly excel at playing messed-up individuals striving to desperately grasp some happiness in their personal lives. When the Miletti case reaches a dangerous crossroads, and Zen might actually lose his life, their "I love you" exchange just melted me. First Tania says it, and then Zen CALLS HER BACK, whispers "I love you" and HANGS UP?! That moment pretty much epitomizes everything I love about Rufus in ten seconds - so much restrained passion, emotion, and kindness is in that scene it overwhelms, it really does. There is also a similar exchange with his mother, when he basically thanks her for everything she's ever done for him, then kisses his hands and gestures towards her in salute and WALKS OFF!! He just WALKS OFF and leaves his mother shattered in the kitchen!! Oh my word that was brilliantly played. If you don't understand why I love Rufus Sewell so much, just watch those scenes - they pretty much say it all.

Ben Miles as Colonna has been a constant presence in this series, but his role is significantly expanded in this episode and full of unexpectedly humorous exchanges with his reluctant protege. The professional double-standards the "unfortunately" honest Zen are forced to operate within are, quite frankly, mind blowing. The government wants Miletti recovered safely with a minimum of publicity, since he bankrolls the party in power. The nonchalance with which Colonna hands over a suitcase FULL of laundered money for a second ransom payment is hilarious, because only Zen recognizes the absurdity of the moment. If the money drop fails it's only Zen's career on the line, so one of the best parts of this episode is the revelation of how Zen has learned to work the system in his favor, much to Colonna's chagrin. *wink*

The pacing and atmosphere of this episode was superbly handled. I especially loved Zen's first failed ransom drop attempt - the setting, the crowd, and Adrian Johnston's score all worked together in perfect harmony to build suspense. This made the payoff incredibly satisfying, when thanks to cooperation from his private eye friend Gilberto (Francesco Quinn), Zen is able to conceal his and the government's complicity in the illegal ransom plot (embarassing Heuber is just a bonus). I loved the fact that we got to see more of Gilberto in this episode. He and Zen have a stormy friendship, but their regard for each other is so well played I wish Gilberto's role had been greatly expanded in the series (for narrative purposes AND the fact that Francesco is DROP. DEAD. GORGEOUS.).

It's interesting, because over the course of this series I've come to appreciate that Zen would be the last person in the world to say that anything comes easily for him. But Ratking gives him that illusion, even for just a brief moment - he's got the girl, the plan to rescue Miletti appears successful - and in a flash it all disappears, leaving him on the brink of personal and professional ruin. You know you probably need to re-evaluate your life when your girlfriend's soon-to-be ex-husband tries to kill himself in front of you (and fails - seriously, this should be read as a cautionary antecdote against affairs), and then your kidnapping investigation blows up in your face in a spectacular fashion, leaving the man you're trying to rescue dead.

But the thing that I like so much about Zen is that he refuses to concede defeat. With nothing left to lose and everything to gain, he persists in his investigation and uncovers the truth, nearly dying in the process. Surviving Ratking was a hard-won victory, and Rufus Sewell proves he was the perfect actor to portray the highs and lows, the depth and nuance in this "everyman" character. And the payoff is oh-so-sweet - strong-arming Colonna into giving him the temporary job of chief, and using his newfound clout to pursue correct (if unpopular) lines of enquiry? PRICELESS, people, freaking PRICELESS.

Zen is a shining standout in Rufus Sewell's filmography. He's such a wonderfully layered, nuanced character - on the one hand, seemingly unflappable and self-assured, on the other hand capable of incredible kindness (oh I LOVED the fact that he donated the government's ill-gotten ransome money to a NUN!) and heart-stopping vulnerability, all while being drop dead gorgeous and adorable. Just when I thought my Rufus Sewell obsession had perhaps reached its height, the man gives me this series - all I can say to that is, more please.


Heidenkind said...

Love it! My favorite part of this episode was when Zen said ciao to his momma before dropping off the money. Such a great scene.

Soooo, I made this totally cheesy music video out of Zen clips because I'm a fangrl of this series and need help: :P

Unknown said...

@heidenkind - OMG! That "ciao" moment was PRICELESS. It just about KILLED ME!!!

Off to check out your music vid!

Unknown said...

@heidenkind - GIRL!!! YOU ARE KILLING ME!!! That was fabulous. You realize I'm going to be watching this video ALL WEEK, right?

Heidenkind said...

@Ruth Aw, you're so nice. :) I just wish I could have found a clip to download of them on the desk. ;)

Unknown said...

@heidenkind - I just have to appreciate genius where I find it. ;) The desk scene - especially when it BREAKS! - is hilarious. Give YouTube a few weeks to catch up. :)

Joni said...

Ahhh! Sebastian Armesto was in an episode of "Zen" AND I MISSED IT?!?!?! I really really hope PBS has this one streaming so I can watch it. Not sure how I will live my life without seeing the third and sadly last episode.

Unknown said...

@Joni - PBS should be streaming "Ratking" through the end of August, and the show is now on DVD - hope you get to see the (sadly) last episode soon!

Lori said...

YES....give Rufus an Emmy NOW! He is BRILLIANT! I've been a fan of his since the late 90s, then seriously fell in love with him after Shakespeare Retold and now this takes it to a whole new level. So tragic this was the end...

Lori said...

Oh, and you forgot that Sarah Jane Potts is the adorable Connor's sister.

Unknown said...

@Lori - OMG! I totally didn't make the Connor connection, thanks for pointing that out!

I still can't believe we only get three episodes of Rufus being brilliant in Zen...this is so sad. :(