The Borgias: 15th-century Sopranos for a 21st-century audience

From the Toronto Globe and Mail
(Photos follow the article)

The Borgias: 15th-century Sopranos for a 21st-century audience
ELIZABETH RENZETTI
BUDAPEST— From Saturday’s Globe and Mail

‘Put down your hot dogs and put on your helmets!” the first assistant director barks, an order relayed in Hungarian to two hundred lunching extras who have grabbed a very quick break on the set of the upcoming miniseries The Borgias. Dutifully, the Hungarians – who are dressed as 15th-century French soldiers – put away their cellphones, cigarettes and frankfurters, take up their helmets and pikes, and march haphazardly toward one of history’s wickedest women.

Except that Lucrezia Borgia, as played by British actress Holliday Grainger, looks less like an (allegedly) murderous, incestuous schemer than a 20th-century pop princess, all pink cheeks and lush blonde hair. Lucrezia sits on her black horse, looking across a Hungarian field which, thanks to the miracles of CGI, will be filled on television screens with thousands of soldiers of the Papal army, led by Lucrezia’s brother Juan (whose minor crimes, including military incompetence and seducing his brother’s wife, make him the good Borgia.)

The Borgias were the Sopranos of the 15th century, and the producers of the nine-part miniseries are clearly hoping, come next spring, to fill the gaping hole in torture, sex, historical semi-accuracy and codpieces left when The Tudors finished its hugely successful run. But mention the T-word on the set of the Canadian co-production and you run the risk of being run through.

“I’m not allowed to say it’s more tasteful than the Tudors,” says David Oakes, the British actor who plays Juan Borgia, with an impish smile. “It’s very different. If The Tudors started to make period drama accessible to Americans on television, then this is a step up again. This is film quality.”

Of course, that includes the odd hot poker and heaving bosom. Producer James Flynn worked on both shows and while he acknowledges The Borgias is trying to replicate The Tudors’ appeal to a young, male audience, he insists the new show is painted on a wider canvas: “There’s intrigue and sex and violence, it’s a heady cocktail that should attract a large audience. But it’s really about the journey of a ruthless man with huge ambition … It’s about family, it’s about loyalty.”

At the head of the family is Rodrigo Borgia, later Pope Alexander VI, the first pope to openly acknowledge his illegitimate children. (He especially favoured the useless Juan: You could say he put all his ego in one bastard.) As wily as he is licentious, Borgia was once described by Alexandre Dumas as “the most perfect incarnation of the devil that perhaps ever existed.”

“Well, yes,” says Jeremy Irons, who plays Rodrigo, with a not entirely pious smile. “But history belongs to the winners, doesn’t it? And the Borgias had many enemies, because they were Spanish interlopers.”

The Borgias is the baby of Irish director Neil Jordan, who has dreamed for 20 years of making a movie about the Spanish upstarts who arrived like a hurricane in Rome, and came to rule the Catholic church through a recipe of murder, intimidation, bribery and the occasional orgy. It is said that Mario Puzo based The Godfather on the family of Rodrigo Borgia and his bloodthirsty children.

Jordan wrote all nine episodes and directed the first four. The quality of the series extends to the high Canadian content in cast and crew, including director Jeremy Podeswa, Montreal actor François Arnaud as the diabolical Cesare, and, as the Borgia nemesis Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, Stratford’s Colm Feore.

Della Rovere, who went on to become Pope Julius II, is only moderately corrupt and ambitious, which makes him the good guy of the piece. “The Borgias are heinous, no question, but so was everybody at this period,” says Feore, dressed in severe black vestments, an anachronistic plastic cup of apple cider in hand. “There was a lot of truly corrupt, horrible stuff going on. My guy wasn’t a whole lot better but he did have perhaps a stronger moral centre.”

Feore and the other actors have been shooting near Budapest since July. The $45-million production, which will debut on Showtime in the United States in early April and then Bravo and CTV shortly after, is an American-Irish-Hungarian-Canadian co-production, cobbled together with talent and financing from those countries. Hungary has become a magnet for large-scale miniseries like The Borgias and The Pillars of the Earth because it offers tax breaks, medieval landscapes largely free from cell-phone towers, and crews that are technically knowledgeable while not requiring the same concessions as their North American counterparts.

On this cool October day, for example, the crew don’t actually stop for a lunch break but grab hot dogs or buns that are, quite literally, tossed their way. As with any ambitious television production, they’re racing the clock and hoping to wrap the outdoor scenes while the weather is good. On a nearby soundstage, two hundred carpenters have built a miniature Rome, not in a day, but in a few months.

At that time, everybody who could hold a paintbrush or write a treatise passed through Rome, which allows The Borgias to indulge in a type of storytelling you might call Hits of the Renaissance. The script contains roles for Whore Number One and Arrogant Young Nephew, but also for Savonarola and Leonardo da Vinci and Machiavelli, who based his political treatise The Prince on Cesare Borgia. “I had dinner with Machiavelli and Medici the other day,” Feore says. “Fabulous guys, really fun.”

While not attempting to bury nor praise the Borgias, Feore points out that in the late 15th century, Rome was in tatters, ruined and crime-ridden, and perhaps needed a strong arm like Rodrigo’s to make things run smoothly. And, of course, to bring God’s word to the infidels, by force if necessary.

The strong man always makes enemies, and sometimes war: This entire morning Feore’s been on his horse shooting a scene where della Rovere, the French King Charles VIII and their hostage Lucrezia prepare to battle Juan and the papal army. Two weeks before he left to join the production, Feore got a call: “Um … can you ride?” He took a few lessons in Stratford and discovered a professional affinity with horses: “They’re like actors,” he says. “They’re sort of pretty, most of them, but they’re stupid.”

On cue, Holliday Grainger gallops from the French King’s side and crosses the battlefield to convince her brother to surrender before he gets a holy drubbing. This is not actually how it happened in history; Rodrigo Borgia’s mistress and her companion were taken captive, not his daughter. But then, loins are already being girded against challenges of historical inaccuracy.

“There is poetic licence,” allows producer Flynn. “If they filmed what actually happened,” says Feore, “it would be condemned as an improbable fiction.” Oakes, the young actor playing Juan, offers just one example: The Chestnut Ball, a party organized by Pope Alexander VI, who hired all the courtesans in Rome to surround a field of chestnuts and pick them up … without using their hands. “If we showed that,” says Oakes, “people wouldn’t believe it.”

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