Sex, violence and the Church: On set with The Borgias.
ETYEK, Hungary — Pope Alexander VI, the most notorious man to head the Vatican due to his enthusiasm for sex orgies, bribery, murder and military conquest, has just placed a magnificent jewelled crown on the head of French King Charles VIII and declared him king of Naples.
Alexander’s powerful, haunting voice, backed, as he says, by “the authority of the almighty God,” echoes through the jam-packed St. Peter’s Basilica. He declares that Charles will “reign forever with Jesus Christ.”
“Cut!” shouts the floor director, a signal to the young Hungarian boys lip-synching a Latin hymn that they can stop popping open their mouths every few seconds like blowfish.
Oscar-winning British actor Jeremy Irons is playing the scheming, manipulative, and sexually incontinent pope — who reigned from 1492 to 1503 and was the inspiration for Mario Puzo’s The Godfather — in this new $45-million Canadian-Irish-Hungarian production called The Borgias.
The nine-part series, potentially controversial, given the Vatican’s ongoing woes over the sex-abuse scandal, will premiere on April 3 on Bravo! and on Showtime in the U.S.
Irons’ performance in the scene as Alexander — formerly known as Rodrigo Borgia, before he bribed his way into the Catholic Church’s top job — appears flawless. But Irons is a noted perfectionist.
He bolts to the nearby curtained-off monitors and leans over the shoulder of Jeremy Podeswa, the Canadian director of the final three episodes of the series.
Podeswa, in a casual shirt and blue jeans, and Irons, wearing heavy, flowing red vestments and a towering papal cap, watch replays on a monitor and ponder possible changes, while $50-a-day Hungarian extras — outfitted as cardinals, French and Vatican generals, Swiss Guards, soldiers, local nobles, friars, nuns and commoners — relax, head out for a smoke, or reach for their mobile phones.
As Irons leaves, he passes Zoltan Rihmer, a young Hungarian academic hired to be the production’s “papal and Latin adviser.”
Irons wants to make sure he hasn’t committed any liturgical gaffes at the altar.
“Happy?” Irons deadpans.
“Absolutely,” replies a beaming Rihmer. “It’s fabulous.”
The producers are hoping audiences and critics will be just as glowing about The Borgias, a creation of Irish writer-director Neil Jordan, who won an Oscar for the screenplay for the 1992 film The Crying Game.
Showtime picked up The Borgias to fill the gap left by The Tudors, an Irish-Canadian co-production loosely based on the reign of England’s Henry VIII in the early 1500s. The Tudors ran for four seasons on Showtime before its finale last spring, and built steadily larger audiences.
Jordan, who recruited a third Oscar winner (Gabriella Pescucci, the costume designer, who won an Oscar for Age of Innocence) to the production, will bring a big-screen feel to viewers’ living rooms, according to the production team.
“Neil thinks cinematically,” Podeswa told Postmedia News during a brief break in shooting at a massive studio on the outskirts of Budapest.
“This is the first television show Neil’s done, and it will have a more cinematic esthetic — a broad canvas,” he said, paraphrasing Jordan’s directive: “‘You don’t have to think small screen, you don’t have to always be close, you can do things in a less obvious way.’”
While the script takes some liberties with history, those decisions were driven primarily by the need to build a flowing narrative, rather than to dramatize.
The history of the Borgia family, in fact, needs no embellishment.
“(Alexander’s) morals were widely held to be deeply corrupt,” wrote the late British historian Christopher Hibbert in his 2009 book, The House of Borgia.
The book recounts one incident when 50 prostitutes were brought to a party at his Vatican apartment to dance naked before him, his adult children, and other guests. The evening culminated with prizes for those who had the most sex with the prostitutes.
Perhaps more notorious was Alexander’s son Cesare, a cardinal and one of the inspirations for Italian bureaucrat-philosopher Machiavelli’s The Prince.
Cesare used violence, war and deception to keep his father in power. He was also a hot-tempered sadist who would assemble prisoners outside his Vatican balcony to shoot for fun, according to Hibbert.
One man arrested for insulting Cesare had his hand cut off and his tongue ripped out and attached to the finger of the severed hand.
“The whole grisly ensemble was hung out of the prison window for all to see,” he wrote.
Francois Arnaud, the handsome young Montrealer playing Cesare in The Borgias, is one of the actors brought in to give the series some sex appeal. So while he’s at times ruthless and manipulative, his character is intended to be rather more sympathetic than the psychopath from history.
The Cesare character in The Borgias “does horrible things, but he always finds a way to justify them, at least to himself,” Arnaud said in his cluttered private studio room, adorned with half-eaten food and dumbbells on the floor.
“I kill people to protect my family, to protect my sister, to remain in a position of power. It’s kill or be killed. I don’t take pleasure in killing people.”
In some areas, Jordan only hints at some of the more outrageous claims about the Borgia family, including unsubstantiated rumours that the pope and Cesare both had incestuous liaisons with Lucrezia.
“They (Cesare and Lucrezia) are very close and very tactile with each other, and a lot of people will watch that and think, ‘Oh, what a lovely brother and sister, look how close they are,’” said Holliday Grainger, the pretty blond British actress who plays Lucrezia.
“But there are a few scenes where you can very easily read in something more, if you want to.”
Producer James Flynn said the TV series will bear a closer resemblance to The Sopranos than The Tudors.
“This is the original crime family,” Flynn said in his office at a massive studio on the outskirts of Budapest.
The TV series juxtaposes the violence, sexual escapades and scheming with intense family love and devotion between Alexander and his children.
“This is clearly The Godfather, in the sense that it’s all about family,” said Canadian actor Colm Feore, who plays Alexander’s archrival, Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere.
“But it’s also about the Renaissance, explosions of greed, power, art, desires, and how they all fit within the context of the Catholic Church.”
The producers say there is no deliberate attempt to exploit the Catholic Church’s ongoing child sex scandal, noting that Jordan first conceived the idea more than a decade ago.
But they acknowledge that the heightened public of, and interest in, the Vatican could draw more viewers curious about the pre-Reformation Vatican.
What viewers will quickly discover is that the Vatican of today, which represents the world’s smallest state, is vastly different from the institution that ruled over Italy’s papal states and headed a powerful army.
“In those days, the pope was not only the supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church; he was a secular ruler, as well,” said the academic adviser, Zoltan Rihmer.
“This led him into Italian and world politics of the day, and that was a very turbulent period. He had to fight his way through the nobility of Rome and of these papal states.”
The series premiere begins with Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, working with his 18-year-old Cesare to bribe and scheme their way to victory in the papal conclave. A Spaniard viewed with suspicion by Rome’s elite, Borgia is able to afford the hefty bribes, due to the considerable wealth he accumulated as a senior Vatican administrator.
But it’s clear, after his victory, that the new pope’s rivals, including Della Rovere, will not take defeat easily. Cesare, in a Machiavellian twist, uses an assassination attempt against his father to the family’s advantage.
The series naturally focuses on Alexander’s ruthlessness and his personal and moral flaws, though historians say the more sensational accounts of the Borgia dynasty are one-sided.
“It could be noted that there were positive sides to Alexander’s rule,” noted University of Glasgow historian Christopher Black.
“Besides administrative and financial reforms, he made moves to reform the monastic orders, and was a respected patron of artists and humanist scholars, who respected him.”
Feore said the complexity of Alexander’s character, and the context in which he ruled, can’t be ignored. The pope was in many ways like a warlord, but his goal was to sustain the Catholic Church — and what he hoped would be a family dynasty — in a hostile environment.
“In this world, you have to promise things you’re not going to deliver on, you have to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, you have to understand that people are corruptible, venal, horrible, maniacal, and self-centred. If you can recognize that and use it to your advantage, then you might be doing God’s work,” Feore told Postmedia News.
“Now, if that circular kind of thinking works for you, boy, have we got a show for you.”
The Borgias’ two-hour premiere airs Sunday, April 3 on Bravo! at 10 ET/ 7 PT.
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