Zen: that’s amore

Why we've fallen in love with the Italian detective drama

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January is the time when we long for something a little different, maybe a touch playful in the schedules to take us into spring.

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Well, it’s happened. BBC1 has just treated us to a crime drama series set in the golden-brown landscapes of Italy with an elegant script, stylish soundtrack and a charming detective who looks the part of maverick and womaniser – yet proves a happy departure from that stereotype.

Zen is an adaptation of Michael Dibdin’s detective novels featuring Aurelio Zen, a thoughtful Italian sleuth with a name even his friends find questionable. In the novels he’s in his late 40s but the excellent Rufus Sewell is cast as a younger, rather dapper Zen.

In fact, Zen and his colleagues aren’t just coppers, they are surely the descendants of Renaissance princes, with their tall, graceful physiques immaculately attired in expensive suits, designer shades a chic splash of black against jutting cheekbones.

If this makes the Roman police force sound like a bunch of posturing himbos, far from it. It works because Italian men, whatever their profession, take appearances very seriously.

The look of the drama captures this unique feel of Rome and its inhabitants, drawing you in right from the retro opening credits. The time is now, but the incidental music and sepia photography suggest the glamour of Fellini’s Rome of the 1950s and 60s.

It’s a city, of course, where even the cafes seem to have been around for centuries and we are lured into its heart when Zen and his beautiful colleague/love interest Tania (Caterina Murino) enjoy a flirt at their local espresso bar, or lunch outside at one of those wonderful family restaurants that are decades-old, politicians mingling as comfortably with police as with the mafia.

So the seduction is swift and efficient. In no time at all we’re in the mood for the gently twisting plots in which Zen tries to get to the truth while simultaneously staying on the right side of various sinister government officials.

What makes Zen stand out is the spin on this familiar formula. Other detectives shout and obstruct but the unfailingly courteous Zen deploys Machiavellian tactics in pursuit of honest ends. In episode two he managed to see justice done and still obtain a central city flat for Tania from his corrupt patron.

Yes, as with all detectives, Zen is well-liked by the ladies yet he’s effortlessly loyal to his girlfriend. Yes, he mixes with the dangerous and the damned but after hours, it’s home for a meal with his mother.

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Michael Dibdin created a hit when he penned the Zen novels and it’s hats off to the BBC for commissioning this cliché-busting production. I’m devastated it’s ended. Let’s have more soon.