Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Original Crime Family

“Can a family such as ours survive such a prize?”
 –Cesare Borgia
    I’ve always been more of a fantasy/science fiction fan, with a deep love for humor and action, so shows not explicitly stated to deal with any of these elements have never been high on my list of interests. Too much drama would make me bored, I thought, without the promise of some sort of fantastical flair or constant battles. Then a preview for a historical drama starring “the original crime family” piqued my curiosity. The Borgias, directed by Neil Jordan and based on the life of Rodrigo Borgia and his family after his election as pope, reeled me in and kept me hooked.

            The Borgias takes us into Rome at the height of the Roman Catholic Church and its excesses. Pope Innocent VII expires in the first scene after begging his council of cardinals to cleanse the church of corruption. Rodrigo Borgia promises to carry out this last wish, but his conspiring to become the next pope quickly casts doubt on his sincerity. Rodrigo becomes Pope Alexander VI and his plotting has just begun. No one in Rome wants him as pope, especially not his thwarted rival Della Rovere who quickly starts his attempts to unseat him. 

         The show lives up to its tagline: “Sex. Power. Murder. Amen.” Despite taking place in the holiest of cities and having cast members among the clergy, no vice is left untried. Sex is a powerful motivator for the characters’ actions. Every episode gives us at least one couple in coitus whether it is with a mistress or their current lover and not a breast or derriere is left unexposed. Power is the goal of both the Borgia family and their enemies and they jockey with each other throughout the course of the season over the hands of Dukes and Kings. Murder is the coin of the realm and no one’s hands are clean of blood, whether from poison or a knife in the dark. The assassin is well paid and much used, from underground bathhouses to rainy alleyways, and he is, of course, on the Borgia’s payroll.

            Jeremy Irons is brilliantly cast as Rodrigo Borgia, bringing a smooth charisma to his every scene. His Rodrigo is manipulative with a drawling charm whether he is pronouncing God’s word, commanding his sons, or patronizing his council of cardinals. And his overly dramatic delivery of religious sayings never fails to bring a smile to my face.

 The rest of the main cast delivers excellent performances as well. Francois Arnaud is Cesare Borgia, the eldest son of Rodrigo, willing to do the dirty deeds the family needs to get done despite his hatred for his priestly office. He manages to have the same dangerous air whether in his cardinal robes or street clothes. His brother, Juan, is played by David Oakes. He brings the cocky and proud womanizer to life as well as his underlying insecurity. Holliday Granger is Lucretia Borgia and her portrayal of Lucretia’s is a compelling mix of innocence and cunning as events force her to grow up quickly. These actors have great chemistry with each other and you never doubt their closeness or their family loyalty. The chemistry between Arnaud and Granger, as brother and sister, teeters very close to improper sibling relations which fits the historical accounts of Cesare and Lucretia.  

            The scenery of The Borgias transplants you into fifteenth century Rome. Each scene is a visual delight. Gorgeous cathedrals, lush landscapes, and fortified castles are just a few of the backdrops I was treated to. The costumes were just as wonderful, brightly colored and elaborate. The dresses were gorgeous, though Rodrigo’s papal robes were often prettier. Even the men had lovely outfits, although some were ridiculous to my modern eye. 

            The Borgias captured a spot on my DVR. I could immediately see how this devious family inspired Mario Puzo to base the Corleones from The Godfather on them. The nine episodes of season one flew by quickly, giving me the action and humor I wanted and the scheming I never knew I needed, and I’ve been waiting impatiently for the start of the next season. April 8th cannot come fast enough.

Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia

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