DVD Review: BORGIA Complete Season 1

Borgia the TV series is - like the historical figure who inspired it - a hungry thing. Created by Tom Fontana, the producer best known for his work on Homicide and Oz, this is the story of perhaps the most notorious of all the heads of the Catholic church, his rise to power and the family drama that surrounded it. Fontana's show wants to be everything to everyone. While it takes a significantly more nuanced, reflective approach than some writers have done with the man who became Pope Alexander VI it still wants to stuff nearly every episode full of the requisite gruesome violence, labyrinthine political intrigue and sex, on top of a Cliff Notes for Renaissance Italy in the late 15th century.

Surprisingly, this porking out gets results. Borgia's blend of freewheeling philosophy interspersed with sudden bursts of medieval cruelty doesn't reach the giddy heights of a Deadwood or a Carnivalé, but this is still smart, well paced, hugely entertaining television, for all the plot beats often lack in subtlety. It struggles with a shaky start where the constant exposition threatens to swamp any forward momentum the writing tries to build up, and the dialogue tends towards the blunt. But some excellent production values and a solid cast elevate even the pulpiest moments, and you're always conscious of an intelligence behind the show, even when it's pushing your buttons.

A quick primer at the start of the first episode explains how Italians circa 1492 were at each others' throats, while simultaneously terrified the armies of rival European powers or furious Moslem hordes were about to lay siege to their borders at any moment. The Borgia were just one of several families vying for control of Rome, and through it the country - given the capital served as the figurehead of the dominant Catholic faith, and the Western world took religion very seriously. This is only the briefest gloss on a complex fresco of lies, enmity, and angry old men staring daggers at each other, which is one reason the show initially feels like moderately heavy going.

Rodrigo Borgia's Spanish ancestry made him an outsider, and (initially) he had no alliances with France, Spain or the warring Italian city states like Milan or Florence. He had illegitimate children. This wasn't that unusual for the nobility (lots of men who went on to be Pope fathered children all over Europe), but they gave his enemies ammunition just by existing. The first episode has to establish Borgia the elder and the web of tortured working relationships he maintains on his way to the papal throne - with the man currently sat there, Innocent VIII; with the Sforza, Orsini and della Rovere families; with the French and Spanish kings, with the mother of his children, and on, and on, and on.

It's not impossible to follow but it smacks (painfully so) of panicked cramming for an exam, rather than gently easing in prospective long-term viewers. The dialogue doesn't help, either, with a whole lot of "As you know, Roberto" delivered with an awkward portentousness that calls way too much attention to the gravitas the writers want you to pick up on, where the lack of contractions feels more like a high school play than courtly conversation. In this context the clashing accents - more flavours of English than a community college language class - are a nagging distraction, or worse, comical.

Stick with it, though, and the effort pays off in spades. And to be fair, Borgia is hardly a trial. It's a gorgeous production, for starters, benefiting in part from the money in pay-per-view TV (French station Canal+) and in part from some very savvy use of location shooting and CG. Filmed in the Czech Republic, some way from the Holy City, the interiors still look almost as sumptuous as the costumes - a scholar of the period might be able to pull them apart but the atmosphere feels more than convincing. Backgrounds in long shots are frequently set up like paintings, a smart use of unreality that echoes Lech Majewski's The Mill and the Cross.

And the cast settle into their roles even as the first episode is still working out the kinks. The mess as Borgia's childrens' tensions, long suppressed finally boil over is what lands the hook - Cesare a  firebrand, sworn to a life in the church but struggling with more earthly passions and severe daddy issues, Juan a brute and a cuckold, Lucrezia hitting puberty and realising what society expects of her now she's come of age. The sight of more earthy, human problems after the clumsy history lesson elicits a flicker of real interest, then when Rodrigo starts trying to deal with these problems while still gunning for the papacy you begin to think there might be something to this show after all.

Once over that first hurdle the plotting gets a lot more confident, deftly spacing out the big historical moments (the death of Innocent VIII, the conclave that elected Borgia as Alexander VI, Rodrigo's first moves to consolidate his power, the French offensive against Italy) with the smaller (the fugitive Ottoman prince Şehzade Cem Sultan, the four siblings taking their first steps as officially acknowledged children of the new Pope). The dialogue gets much more room to breathe, with both the family back-and-forth and the lofty sermonising sounding much closer to actual human speech rather than dramatic convenience.

The writing lacks the effortless lyricism of HBO's best, but the cast make up for the weak spots to a great extent. Rodrigo Borgia is no Al Swearengen, but the way John Doman (best known as Commissioner Royles in The Wire) uses his age is fascinating - the camera seems more than happy to close in on the patriarch's every line and wrinkle, but Doman's body language still conveys this barely-veiled sense of ruthless determination where his children seem right to be scared of him. Italian actress Marta Gastini (The Rite, Argento's Dracula 3D) as the pope's mistress Giulia Farnese is far better than her CV might suggest, playing up to a man three times her age as well as acting part mother, part sister to Lucrezia (Isolda Dyachauk, from Sokurov's Faust).

While the writers are happy with the same historical speculation most people who recognise the name Borgia expect (incest, murder, nepotism) the plotting sticks to what actually happened, at least in broad strokes, and it's a mark of how much better the show becomes that even though Wikipedia will tell you who lives and who dies the sense of these characters growing and changing over time is still greatly compelling. Giulia's brother Alessandro, say, had a long career ahead of him but Diarmuid Noyes makes his awkward manoeuvres through the church's political infighting as a young man both something to root for and a haunting loss of innocence (from raising hell to juggling secrets between his erstwhile friends and the pontiff).

While these twelve episodes cover a fair amount of ground (up to a very significant death, and the fallout for the pope and his inner circle) there's still plenty to explore in the planned second series. The family lasted a long time, and again, many of their associates ended up being movers and shakers of considerable importance, so if Showtime can keep their Borgia series going Canal+ should be able to get a fair amount of mileage out of this one. Given the steady increase in quality, a growing depth and maturity along with the levels of violence and skin, it doesn't seem totally out of the question Fontana's latest creation could become event television on a par with his earlier work - but even more of the same would be worth waiting for.

THE DISCS:

Studio Canal UK's DVD release of Borgia Complete Season 1 - available to buy now - gives the series a solid, if bare-bones release on standard-definition home video (BluRay is also available). The DVD set splits the series up three episodes to a disc, each of which goes straight from the Studio Canal logo and copyright warnings to a simple menu letting you choose one of the three. Each episode is split into multiple chapter stops, though these are only available during playback.

VIDEO:

The picture is good, given the older format, though nothing exceptional. There's a good level of detail and the colour palette is fairly rich - the texture of the excellent production design comes across very well. The image is still notably soft, with darker colours often running together; all the more so in dimly lit or night scenes, where Borgia looks far more like regular TV on disc for all the money that's obviously gone into the show. It's a satisfying watch, but hardly demo material, and easily outclassed by HD transfers.

AUDIO:

The 5.1 audio track is fine through regular speakers. There's nothing here to strain anyone's home audio, but the score and dialogue are crisp and clear, with perhaps very minimal hiss on the higher tones (there doesn't seem to be much bass in the mix, overall, with most of it coming from the score). The one glaring omission is (a recurring problem for Studio Canal) the lack of any subtitles - the hearing-impaired are left out, obviously, but the countless heavy accents might also frustrate some viewers.

EXTRAS:

There are no extras on the DVD release, though the BluRays include behind the scenes material and a series of cast interviews - no information on the press release on how long any of these run for.

Borgia takes a while to find its feet, with an opening that feels a little too desperate to hook as big an audience as possible - sex! Violence! Wickedness in the sight of the Lord! - and then to forcibly educate those viewers once it's reeled them in. But it does prove quality historical drama once it gets going, with a great cast, some fairly lavish production values and more nuance and moral shading than might be immediately apparent with all the splatter. The second series might be some time coming (filming starts in November 2012, at the time of writing) but there's more than enough weighty narrative here to warrant repeat viewing between now and then. Studio Canal UK's DVDs are bare-bones, and the lack of subtitles will leave out quite a few potential paying customers, but if you want to check out the show this is a fairly good way to do it. 
Around the Internet:
  • sd6chimp

    Elephant in the room?

    I thought you'd at least compare it for us to the more well known Jeremy Irons Borgias........?

  • Matthew Lee

    Elephant in the room indeed. Unfortunately I haven't seen Showtime's series - I don't have a TV/I'm not too clued up on current streaming options for people in the UK - and I tend to catch series on home video if at all. I did consider trying to talk about both, but thought it was probably best not to. I didn't think it disqualified me from talking about this Borgia, but I agree you're right to ask how they compare. Really sorry I can't help.

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