Paint it black

“The Borgias” returns to Showtime for its third season April 14 at 10 p.m., and I for one can’t wait, having just caught up with season two, now out on DVD.

For the uninitiated, the Spanish-bred dynasty cut a powerful swath across Renaissance Italy, producing two popes, numerous cardinals and even a saint. But the family was also synonymous with the seven deadly sins – although that picture has as much to do with the rumors spread by their many enemies as it does with their actual crimes and misdemeanors.

The series – created by director Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game,” “Interview With the Vampire,” “The End of the Affair”) – sometimes strains to capture what it assumes to be the formal tone of Renaissance aristocracy, particularly in the dialogue, and dwells too much for my taste on the Borgias’ dreary reforming enemies, who talk a good game about being Christ-like but spend an awful lot of time behaving as evilly as the people they would replace. (Clearly, Jordan means the hypocritical goings-on in and out of the Borgia-led Church to be a reflection of our own time, and the series struck a nerve when it played in Italy just as the new pope was about to be selected, with some Italians criticizing what they saw as poor timing.)

Minor quibbles aside, “The Borgias” generally clicks on all cylinders. The production values alone would be worth a look-see. The scenic design, which neatly juxtaposes Vatican splendor with Roman squalor; the costumes (I could swoon over the folds in the women’s sleeves and their jeweled crosses); the score; the superb recreation of Renaissance music and court dances – all illustrate the care with which the series has been made.

Viewers, of course, don’t tune in for costumes. They tune in for characters. And it doesn’t get much better than Jeremy Irons’ arch Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia), a pope who will stop at virtually nothing in his lust for power, money, prestige and, well, lust, even manipulating his surviving children – Cesare (the stunning François Arnaud), the would-be soldier forced to become a prince of the Church; and Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger), the daughter who makes one disastrous marriage after another in a vain attempt to buttress the family’s fortunes.

Irons – who won an Oscar for portraying accused wife-murderer Claus von Bülow in “Reversal of Fortune” – is in full von Bülow mode here. (Has any other actor ever made the reptilian so silky and ebullient?) Yet he also demonstrates that whatever Rodrigo’s flaws, and they are many, he remains devoted to God, the Church, the papacy and the family he loves but has never understood. Irons is matched by Grainger’s tough-tender Lucrezia, a woman determined to find love at all costs, and Arnaud’s cynical, world-weary Cesare, who chafes under his father’s restrictions but yields to them in the hope of one day gaining his affection.

It’s no spoiler-alert that as season three begins, the calamitous events that ended season two have shifted the balance of power between Rodrigo and Cesare while forcing the family into a cocoon and Cesare and Lucrezia into each other’s arms. Despite the rumors that were no doubt fed by an extremely close relationship, there’s no historical evidence that Cesare and Lucrezia were lovers. But incest is the last taboo, isn’t it, especially now that gay unions, the love that once dared not speak its name, is speaking its name all over the place – in the marriage bureaus, the state legislatures, Congress and the Supreme Court.

With rival HBO’s ever-popular “Game of Thrones” featuring incestuous siblings, Showtime probably figures it has nothing to lose.

Or as one wag put it in the blogosphere: Fictional incest is the new black. – Georgette Gouveia

 

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