Zen: The Other Venetian Romantic

The BBC brought us a luxurious new detective series from the streets of Rome this month. Detective Zen is a revival of the archetypical honest man.

Episode one of Zen, the BBC’s feature-length adaptation of Michael Dibdin’s Italian detective series, filmed on location in Italy, feels an awful lot like being on a date you’re a bit apprehensive about. It looks good and is pleasant company for the evening you spend with it, but lacks that sparkle that keeps you thinking about it long after it’s left your sight.

With modern crime dramas, we’re used to clever writing that establishes characters almost immediately, so we can enjoy watching them change and be tested. Zen isn’t like this. Like Dibdin’s upstanding detective, the series is methodical and in no rush to please picky punters. It isn’t especially action-packed or edge-of-your-seat gripping, however, it is an incredibly well made piece of television that is almost worth seeing for the beauty of the Italian locales alone.

More than romance, mood is at the heart of Zen. The cobble streets, the historic, century-old architecture and warm pastel landscapes capture the essence of exotic continental life that this drama is going for. Anthony Horowitz’s book Scorpia buried an unshakable vision deep within me of Venice as this sophisticated sunken city, home to artists, scholars and lovers and, just below the surface, another world of danger and corruption where crime lords drink wine with politicians at lavish masked balls. Zen achieves this too and we’re treated to some spectacular images of Italy that make it the centrepiece to this story.

While it’s easy to be impressed by its setting, the characters themselves are not so easy to fall in love with – on first impressions at least. Rufus Swell is Detective Aurelio Zen, known for his honesty in a town of growing corruption, and former Bond girl Caterina Murino is Tania Moretti, his boss’ new secretary who has caught the eye of every male in the department. This relationship splits the drama into two distinct parts of detective work and romantic encounters that echo the dreams of hardworking, single 40-somethings. It’s becomes stranger still when you learn that Zen lives with his mother – I kid you not.

The mood may be set perfectly, but poor dialogue will ruin any romantic scene in a snap. When you first meet Zen his advances on the lovely Tania are so feeble he comes across as the shy prefect, asking a first year girl out, who probably spends more time in library records than wining and dining beautiful women on the Riviera. And when they part with the exchange: “Are we going to have an affair?” that merely ends with unfettered agreement, I was concerned this may turn out to be all looks and no substance.

Yet, however wrong I was. See, Zen’s charm is that he is the ‘nice guy’, an archetypical character from a forgotten time of filmmaking. The kind of well-meaning guy that holds doors for ladies, that faces up to responsibility and offers to go out of his way to help people: a gentlemen.

By episode two, their flirtatious relationship becomes more complex. A scene where the two enjoy a fantastical kiss in a café is mirrored brilliantly when Zen is called to lunch by the attractive and influential Nadia Pirlo, and meanwhile Tania enters with the arrogant rival from the police department. Swell and Murino were clearly having fun with these characters as they’re chemistry matures over time. This being a romance-cum-detective series set in Italy, of course we want those moments of playful, passionate love of the virgin sort, and we do get that, but its conclusion also lends a satisfying sense of realism to the shared fantasy they’ve been living.

Each of the three adapted novels – Vendetta, Cabal and Ratking – present a new crime for Zen to face, and the narratives work well in regards to his relations with a handful of key figures in the corridors of power, most notably minister Colonna. Unlike like the thrilling three-part Sherlock series during the summer, which was immaculately paced and cleverly surprised audiences, Zen twists expectations by letting things go wrong to see whether the titular character will break under increasing pressure.

A part of me felt slightly cheated out of more dramatic confrontations, seeing as many of Zen’s ultimate advocacies seem to be dispatched in rather fortunate circumstances. But, in the end, these cases are part of the elaborate chess game between Zen and his influential superiors. In the final episode, Colonna, who has been toying with Zen for some time, puts himself in a vulnerable position and it is fulfilling to see the detective take advantages of that after being “too honest for his own good.”

Though it appeared iffy upon first impressions, I found Zen to be a delightful piece of evening entertainment. There’s a dreamy romance to Zen and Tania’s affair and it’s heightened, like so much of the series, by the wonderful Italian settings. Renowned for his honesty, you could imagine Zen as the lesser-known, half cousin of Casanova – and with all those lovers we can hardly call him honest, can we? Our screens have been so full of bent cops and bullish Gene Hunt go-getters that the notion of an ‘honest cop’ seems remarkably quaint. But that’s just what Zen is, he stays the course whether he’s interviewing a call girl or having a verbal spa with his superiors. Whereas others fall prey to temptation, greed and corruption, Zen’s actions make him a character one can thoroughly admire and respect. In an age of gun-toting rude boys and unscrupulous mad men, it’s good to know the honourable man lives on.

Aaron Lee

  • Rosie Frost

    Would love another series!