Saturday, August 31, 2013

Bellissimo Montalbano!

For awhile now I’ve been nudging you to check out the programming broadcast via MHZ Networks, an independent public TV distributor based in northern Virginia.

MHZ presents programming for “A Globally Minded Audience.” It specializes in international news, a kind of truly global PBS.

Certainly it’s one place to go when you can’t take another minute of lame pledge-break programs. (“Strengthen Your Brain with Eric Clapton’s Doo-Wop Hits.”)

Indeed, KQED, my San Francisco Bay Area PBS station, should take a look over its shoulder. After some time away, MHZ has returned to San Mateo College station KCSM. Meaning it’s time for me to quit the nudging, jump on the old pogo stick and jam up and down the street like Paul Revere—MHZ is not only back, it’s better than ever.

Joy reigns mostly due to MHZ’s most unique contribution: International Mystery, a nightly rotating series of crime films and TV series originating from such countries as Sweden (the original Wallander, Martin Beck, and Anno 1790), Norway (the sleek, stylish and thrilling Varg Veum); France (evergreen Maigret), and Germany (the baffling Commissario Brunetti, featuring Venice cops speaking perfect, precise HochDeutsch): a perfect lineup of alternatives for genre fans who wish Masterpiece Mystery wasn’t so darned Anglo-centric.

All of them are well produced (and sub-titled), and, of course, some clearly better than others. International Mystery serves up a terrific and varied menu, but the item to start with is one from Italy, a show I believe most everyone will get a kick out of and maybe even fall deliriously in love with: the boisterous and delightful Detective Montalbano.

Adapted from a series of novels by Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri, Montalbano first appeared on Italian television in 1999. MHZ picked it up for U.S. broadcast sometime in the mid-2000s. Twenty-six episodes have been produced to date at a rate of three or four every couple years (the usual practice with European series—better to get to get-‘em-right instead of get-‘em-out-fast.) The latest series of four episodes premiers this Sunday evening, September 1; check these listings or watch it on MHZ’s website.)

Montalbano is set in the fictional Sicilian seaside town of Vigata, a place of crumbling ancient beauty that is beset by the erosion of time, modern problems, and the occasional shadow thrown by la Mafia. Vigata’s police force is captained by Commissario Salvo Montalbano, an exuberant man wrestling with crime and corruption, his lusty appetites and a motley team of crime fighters, made up of the good, the bad, and the bumbling.

As will all the best crime series, Montalbano is about more than its crimes (some of which are very well plotted and some not). Montalbano fully animates and complements its Sicilian setting.

Some of the other International Mystery series, while slickly done, are hollow, gimmicky procedurals, failing to develop their characters and inhabit the worlds they live in—give them English dialogue and you’d have a so-so Masterpiece Mystery show, or a somewhat off episode of The Wire.

Montalbano lopes along like a good long meal, but there’s always a sense of something happening, something to look at, in in its rough and sunny beauty. You may not know much about Sicily but you know you are nowhere else. You feel the breeze off the Mediterranean, the baking of the sun, the pang of hunger in your belly as il Commissario sits down to savor another delicious meal. Montalbano feels completely Sicilian, Italian to its rocky soil. It’s work done with great charm, broad humor, and genuine love.

Salvo Montalbano, of course, is the classic figure of the honest cop trying to maintain his moral compass in a crooked world. What lift him head and shoulders above other fictional cops is both the writing and the actor who plays him:  Luca Zingaretti.

Zingaretti is a dynamic performer and real star. While many actors play their cop roles as cool and in control, Zingaretti, refreshingly and unashamedly, plays Montalbano as a bald, ebullient bear who never loses his lust for life, even when crime and murder wash up at his door (or, as it does in one episode, interrupt his morning swim). He deserves to better known outside Europe, a most pleasing actor and a handsome gentleman.

Zingaretti heads a swell supporting cast playing well-drawn characters, too many to praise here. Director Alberto Sironi and the cinematographers never miss a chance to root their characters in the colorful sunbaked world around them, as though they’d grown from the rocky soil.

A big nod also for composer Franco Piersanti, whose main theme and background score combines what may be Sicilian folk tunes with unsettling rhythms and eccentric arrangements using traditional instruments. His music is pleasingly reminiscent of the master Ennio Morricone without being derivative.

In addition, MHZ is premiering six other new crime series this coming week, all of them new to me. (I intend to sample them all.) A weirdly myopic New York Times article this week reported on the ones produced in France without a single mention of MHZ or the other shows. Clearly, International Mystery is the best-kept secret in this Golden Age of Television. And Detective Montalbano is one of its secret crown jewels.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has just completed BUTCHERTOWN , a 1920s gangster shoot-'em-up. He can be “friended” on Facebook and tweeted at on Twitter. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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