Who would have guessed that one of the biggest issues in 2012 television viewing, both in Europe and in North America, would end up being a ''Battle of the Borgias?''
A few weeks back, we wrote a column about the Showtime pay television network, and their expensive and gorgeous biographical miniseries about the 15th century Borgia family, Spanish minor nobility who became major players in world politics when two different members of the family were elected to the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church.
Imagine our surprise to learn since then, that while director Neil Jordan was working away to create that Showtime series, which was titled ''The Borgias,'' Western New York native Tom Fontana was busy filming another series on the same people and the same events, which has now been released to the American public by Netflix, with the shockingly similar title ''Borgia.''
The Borgias as portrayed in Showtime's series “The Borgias.” Actors are, clockwise from upper left, David Oakes as Juan, Francois Arnaud as Cesare, Aidan Alexander as Giuffre, and Holliday Granger as Lucrezia.
Let me tell you a bit about Fontana, and then some things about ''Borgia,'' and then I'll undertake to do a bit of comparing of the two series.
Chances are, you have already enjoyed television series written by Tom Fontana. He has written any number of plays and programs which have won major awards, mostly for television. These include ''Oz,'' ''St. Elsewhere,'' ''Homicide: Life on the Street,'' ''The Jury'' and ''The Bedford Diaries.''
I found two facts especially interesting about him: He was born the fourth of five children to an Italian-American family on the west side of Buffalo, and according to the computer, he is a first cousin of Broadway legend Patti LuPone. Since Ms. Lupone's mother was from Jamestown and her father was from Dunkirk, it would seem that Fontana has a number of relatives in our county as well, although none of the sites I consulted spelled out who they are.
I did find that Fontana attended Cathedral School, Canisius High School and Buffalo State College. He began his professional life with associations with the late, lamented Studio Arena Theater, before moving to New York City in 1973. He is currently 60 years old.
While he wrote his first plays, which were first performed by himself and his friends into a tape recorder, at the age of 9, he continued to work in production-type jobs with theater companies, until he came to the attention of Bruce Paltrow, father of Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow. Paltrow was creating a television series about life in a big city hospital, which would eventually become ''St. Elsewhere,'' and he hired Fontana as a writer.
Fontana has always operated on the belief that the human race functions best if it deals with reality, and not with the way we wish things were. Probably the most notorious example of this was when in his series ''Strip Search,'' American military practiced torture and sexual humiliation of Middle Eastern prisoners.
In 2004 the series was attacked as unbelievable and distorted by the U.S. government and various organizations defining themselves as advocates of truth and decency. Exactly two weeks later, the scandals in the prison at Abu Ghraib were discovered and made public.
''Borgia'' was made by an international organization, operating with Canal +, which is a pay television cable network, not dissimilar to Showtime or HBO in the U.S.
Fontana's version of the story has been far more popular in Europe, attracting nearly three times as many viewers in Germany as did the Showtime series, for example. As of the information I was able to gather, it had not yet been renewed for a second season, although it seemed unlikely that it would not be renewed.
The series is being distributed in the U.S. by Netflix, and hasn't yet had nearly the publicity build-up of the Showtime series, although it has been available both on demand from the film-sharing network, and on DVD recordings only for about a week, as of this writing. The Showtime series has been renewed, and the second season will begin running on the pay network in early April.
Fontana is famed for his habit of doing his writing in long hand, on yellow pads of paper, rather than at computers. He told an interviewer from the Kansas City Star that he doesn't own a computer. He does have a website - apparently maintained by someone else - and can send and receive email, get a weather forecast and read his favorite newspapers' websites, but he finds that a pen and paper put him into closer communion with the subjects and the people about which he writes.
A character portrayed by actor Dennis Farina on the television series ''Law and Order'' was named Joe Fontana as a tribute to the Western New York writer, and I learned by accident, while researching, that there are a couple of porn stars who have been named in his honor as well.
That's a long way from Canisius High School.
Like the series we previously reviewed, ''Borgia'' takes place in the last years of the 15th century, especially in 1492-93.
The Borgia family was originally Spanish. Before the series begins, the family had moved from Valencia to Rome.
One of the few positions with true political power which someone could acquire, rather than needing to inherit, in that period, was the position of Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Although the doctrine of Papal Infallibility would not be proclaimed until centuries after the Borgias were gone from the situation, the popes still claimed authority over the kings of the world's superpowers, as well as authority over the immortal souls of every human being.
The central character of the family was Rodrigo Borgia. In 1492, he was elected pope, where he began using the name Alexander VI. Rodrigo was the second pope from his family, as his uncle had previously been elected Pope Calixtus IX.
It was a challenge to the church that the pope was elected by everyone holding the position of cardinal who could get to Rome when a previous pope died. A person became a cardinal by being named as one, by the pope. It was a temptation for many popes to name as many of his relatives as possible to be cardinals, so that it was more likely that another member of the same family could be elected eventually.
Rodrigo officially acknowledged four children as his legitimate offspring, although a large number of other people would claim to be his children, as well. The four legitimatized children were sons Juan, Cesare, and Guiffre or Goffredo, and the third of the four, in birth order, a daughter, Lucrezia. In my previous Borgia column, I pointed out that historians dispute whether Juan or Cesare was the first-born. The Fontana version says Juan was older and the Showtime series gives pride of place to Cesare.
The family lived in a period in which conflicts among nations and conflicts among individuals were fierce, with little or no expectation of justice ever being served. It seems true that Pope Alexander won election to the papacy through a combination of bribery, trickery and threats. Such a heritage meant that the family was surrounded by people who despised them, and when they eventually lost their iron-fisted control over both church and politics, their enemies were quick to hire writers to paint them as incestuous, amoral murderers, whether they were or not. Because all this juicy material is readily available, and because there is no scientific evidence whether any of it is true, it has inspired a vast number of books, films, television series, and the like, centered on the family. People seem to just delight in wondering what would have to be true about a person which would allow him to do things so repulsive to the vast majority of people.
Even in that popular children's flick from the Disney Studios of the 1950s, ''The Shaggy Dog,'' the magic spell which converts the young hero into a large sheepdog comes from a painted portrait of Lucrezia Borgia.
In Fontana's series, Rodrigo Borgia is portrayed by American actor John Doman. Doman is a successful character actor who has displayed a wide variety of talents, but his forte has been ruthless American businessmen, of the type who cancel their employees' health insurance, even if their children die of preventable diseases, to gain the money to buy themselves even fancier cars and vacation homes.
The Borgia were Spaniards living in Italy, but they have been cast as an American who fathered children by a character played by Spanish actor Assumpta Serna. The children were Juan, portrayed by French actor Stanley Weber; Cesare, portrayed by Irish actor Mark Ryder; Lucrezia, portrayed by Russian actor Isolda Dychauk; and Goffredo, portrayed by young Czech actor Adam Misik.
Clearly, the company has decided that they will make little or no attempt to relate traits of the actors to the traits of their characters.
The series, as of this writing, is made up of 12 episodes, each lasting 52 minutes. Most of the series was filmed in Prague, making as much use as possible of buildings and streets which actually were standing in the 15th century. The film is always beautiful to look at, except when the characters are sinking to depravity of one kind or another.
Director of photography Ousama Rawi is shown on the special features of the DVD three-disc set, demonstrating a newly invented camera which the company used to film the series. It is capable of filming in extremely limited light, enabling scenes to take place with full visibility, by the light of a blazing fireplace or a few candles. The result is truly beautiful.
The film is well-written, paced to draw the viewer into what is happening, and to resolve before the intensity becomes too much. The actors are especially good-looking, and Fontana's gift for actually showing the things he is writing about is richly in evidence. To me, if you're going to watch a film about war, you ought to be prepared to see the reality of war, and not expect bodies struck by cannon balls to resemble sleeping individuals, as our own nation's artistic endeavors so often do.
''Borgia'' is rather more accurate, in my view, than ''The Borgias,'' but no one should watch either series as a history lesson. It's a drama. If you're going to start thinking dramas are portrayals of real life, you're in for a life of disappointment, I fear.
I enjoyed it greatly, and I recommend it to you, if you're up to the challenges.
Both series about the famous family are beautiful to watch. Both are well-photographed, the costumes are stunning, and the writing is clean and easy to follow.
Fontana's version is a bit more graphic than Neil Jordan's. Nearly all of his actors seem to end up naked at one point or another in the first season of the series, although his women tend to be naked in bedrooms while his men tend to be naked while being executed or tortured.
The special features on the ''Borgia'' set are more in-depth and interesting, than those on the Showtime series. I guess if you're watching the broadcasts, you won't see either.
Both series struggle to imagine what leaps of imagination would need to be undergone by individuals, in order to do the violent, morally repugnant actions which are portrayed.
Since we're unlikely to meet people who have actually done the things this family is alleged to have done, yet we can be fairly certain that such things have been done, if we have any hope of understanding our own human nature, it's important that we examine the conflict through an artistic plot.
Showtime's Lucrezia is prettier and sweeter in appearance than Fontana's, which enables more evaluation of the power given by society to people who appear innocent, even when they aren't.
I think Jeremy Irons, who portrayed Alexander VI in ''The Borgias,'' is a splendid actor, but I thought Doman's portrayal of the Borgia pope a much more effective analysis of a powerful person who actually understands morality and knows wrong from right, yet who confuses getting what he wants or feels he deserves, ahead of anything having anything to do with some concept of right.
Stanley Weber's Juan is almost a stupid young man, thrust into undeserved power by his adoring father, who doesn't compare himself successfully with anyone else in the film, to understand what he should do, while David Oakes' version is more of a plotter, relatively equal in talent and intellect to his more violent brother Cesare. Both versions work, dramatically.
Fontana represents Cesare, the man who inspired Machiavelli, as tormented, constantly guessing what logic teaches him that he should do, while being pulled in one direction by his ambition and his desires, while being pushed in other directions by his religious teachings which seek to worship the Prince of Peace by burning people alive and encouraging people to starve themselves, to whip themselves, and practices which numb the mind.
Mark Ryder has an almost innocence about his appearance which plays well off his inner conflict, while ''The Borgias'' more exotic looking Francois Arnaud represents a much more willing sinner.
I enjoyed watching both series. If you enjoy historical drama, you should enjoy either, and if you enjoy knowing the thinking behind things, you would probably enjoy watching both and comparing.
If I had to watch only one, I know I would choose ''Borgia.'' But, I'm very glad I don't have to choose.
Magic meets comedy meets the law as Niagara University presents a production of Shakespeare's ''A Midsummer Night's Dream.''
It will play March 22 through April 1, with curtain times varying. Tickets range in price from $7 to $10, with different prices for different performances. Be certain you know the prices and the curtain time of the performance you choose. The performances will take place in the Clune Center for Theater, on the university's campus, in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
Purchase them in person at the university's box office, or by computer at theatre.niagara.edu. Reserve them by telephone at 286-8685. The phone number leads to a voice mail facility which will result in a prompt return call.
Buffalo's Irish Classical Theatre Company is currently producing the winner of their first Frank J. McGuire International Playwriting Competition. ''Fish Out of Water'' by Gilliam Gratton will be performed through March 25 in the company's Andrews Theatre, on Main St., in the Downtown Buffalo Theater District.
It is described as ''a hilarious comedy, set in County Kilkenny.''
The playwright will be in Buffalo during the run of her play, and will participate in post-performance discussions at certain performances.
Tickets range in price from $34 to $42. For more specific information, or to reserve tickets, phone 853-4282, or go by computer to www.irishclassicaltheatre.com.
Fans of ballet know that Russian ballet is among the most wonderful in the world.
The Moscow Festival Ballet will dance the full length story ballet ''Cinderella,'' with music by Prokofiev, on March 27 at 7:30 p.m. on the stage of the Center for the Arts at the University of Buffalo.
Tickets are $31.50, with discounts for students in any school, and for groups of 20 or more.
For more information about the performance, phone 645-2787 or check their website at www.ubcfa.org. Purchse tickets in person at the center's box office, phone Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000, or go by computer to www.ticketmaster.com.
Today through March 11, the Lancaster Opera House will perform ''Greater Tuna: A Comedy from theHeart of Texas.'' Performances are Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons.
The play requires two actors to portray more than 20 characters from a small town in Texas.
The play is appropriate for theater goers of all ages. Tickets are $20 for the general public, and $18 for students and senior citizens. To purchase, go to their web site at www.LancOpera.org or phone 683-1776.
Lancaster is a suburb of Buffalo, near the Greater Buffalo Airport.
Fans of comic Jerry Seinfeld can see him perform his stand-up comedy routines in Erie's Warner Theatre on April 19.
For more information about tickets for the evening, phone 814-452-4857, or check out their website at firstname.lastname@example.org.