‘Masterpiece’ gets ‘Zen’ when in Rome
Say “Zen,” and you may think of rocks, raked sand and temple bells. But if you tune into the first of three “Zen” episodes at 9 p.m. Sunday on Channel 9 on PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery!” it’s more like wine, pasta and death knells.
Shot in and around Rome (where the story is set) and based on the popular series of mystery novels by the late British-born author Michael Dibdin, “Zen” stars British actor Rufus Sewell (“The Pillars of the Earth”) as contemporary Italian detective Aurelio Zen.
Set against the backdrop of the casual chaos that is Italian politics, the first episode, “Vendetta,” finds Zen ordered by his boss to confirm the original findings in a closed case, while a justice official with ulterior motives commands him to reach a different conclusion.
Meanwhile, the divorced Zen is the target of a vengeful psychopathic killer and deals with his feelings for a married co-worker (Caterina Murino).
Known for historical roles of one sort or another, Sewell found playing a modern European a nice change of pace.
“Normally,” he says, “all I’m required to do is sit on a horse and look annoyed, so it’s more than usual.”
While Zen does wear nice suits and drive an Alfa Romeo — and lives with his mother — Sewell didn’t want him to be a “mammoni,” one of a growing trend of single Italian men who live with their mothers while enjoying a posh bachelor life.
“It was really, really important to me,” Sewell says, “that he wasn’t a man in a Porsche at a stoplight. That’s not who I’m playing. I was very involved in the choice of the car. It’s an Alfa Romeo, with a bash in the side, paper cups, little bit of a mess.”
When Sewell first looked at the script — and in spite of the character’s surname — he didn’t think of Zen as being cool.
“The real pleasure of it for me,” he says, “is the fact that he’s always in a bad situation. He’s always one step behind. He’s not, for me, a winner.
“In the end, he’s not a bad guy. But the idea of him as some kind of crusading moralist is to misunderstand him. He’s perfectly capable of being slippery and underhanded, on his own terms. That’s what makes him, as far as I’m concerned, human.”