Holy hedonism

ARMY OF ME () - May 7, 2011 - 12:00am

With its culture of secrecy, its  spectacu-lar rituals and its links to the supernatural, Catholicism seems to lend itself well to pop culture. The Borgias, a sprawling $40 million US saga about Pope Alexander VI and his bastard brood, is but the latest example.

Set in 15th-century Rome, then the epicenter of civilization in all its gilded, gaudy glory, the series begins at the deathbed of Pope Innocent VII. Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia — essayed by the magnificent Jeremy Irons — is a Spanish outcast who crafts a complex scheme to become the next head of the Church. As his reign as Pope Alexander VI begins, he turns the papacy into a family enterprise by employing his three sons, a daughter and a mistress as his pawns. The pilot episode makes it clear why the Borgia patriarch eventually became one of the most notorious figures in papal history: his pontificate, from 1492 to 1503, was a chess game filled with sex, simony, corruption and murder.

‘The Original Crime Family’

Power players: Series creator Neil Jordan directs Jeremy Irons, whose character, Rodrigo Borgia, was one of the most notorious figures in papal history.

Taking off from Alexandre Dumas’ non-fiction account The Crimes of the Borgias: Evil in the Name of God, series creator and director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) spent years developing the story, initially pitching it as a feature film. That The Borgias wound up on cable television — it premiered on Showtime and Bravo!, coincidentally, in the middle of Lent — is a blessing as the show’s brand of history porn now stretches across nine scandal-filled episodes. Billed as “the original crime family,” the Borgia clan — a poisoning here, some backstabbing there — is said to have inspired Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.

Even if it’s not entirely factual, The Borgias makes for extremely arresting viewing. With Budapest, Hungary, stunt-doubling for the Vatican, the amazing cinematography and lush set and costume design capture the atmosphere of the Renaissance exquisitely, just as it was starting to give way to the Age of Discovery. Of course, the superb cast is not to be overlooked. As the Pope’s children, French-Canadian actor François Arnaud and British actress Holliday Grainger are extremely credible as Cesare and Lucrezia, respectively. The chemistry between the two is so palpable such that the siblings — the former a young priest who acts as his father’s executive assistant, and the latter a 13-year-old virgin bride — give off an intense incestuous vibe.  

Old World Accents

Keeping it in the family: Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger) and her brother Cesare (François Arnaud) are extraordinarily affectionate towards each other.

Maybe I’m the only one who notices these things, but it took me a while to get over the fact that all the characters in The Borgias have proper English accents even if the story is supposed to have taken place in Italy. After giving it some thought, I realized that, perhaps, actors in period pieces adopt a slight European lilt to seem more Old World and that an English one, regardless of the dialect, is probably the least difficult to learn. Archaic Italian — with English subtitles — would’ve been the most authentic, but it also wouldn’t have been the easiest option for both the actors and the viewers. That said, American accents and European history really do not go together.

To call The Borgias a soap opera would be inaccurate because it is more epic than your average family drama. It is closer in magnitude to HBO’s Rome and Showtime’s The Tudors, and if you’re a fan of both or either, you’re definitely in luck: The Borgias exposes the sins of the mighty and the powerful and does so surprisingly well.

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Find me at ginobambino.tumblr.com.

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