“Borgia: Faith and Fear”
Three decades passed between the BBC's 1981 miniseries “The Borgias” and the point at which Neil Jordan and Tom Fontana created two completely separate and competitively salacious series about the Borgias, the family that used its influence in the Catholic Church to solidify its wealth and power. In terms of visibility and star wattage, Jordan's “The Borgias” won the battle, securing Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia and landing on Showtime, but Fontana, the dark wizard of HBO's “Oz,” delivers a similarly compelling and enthusiastically nasty take on the family with “Borgia: Faith and Fear,” which showed on Canal in Europe and streams on Netflix in the U.S.
A key difference between Jordan's “The Borgias” and “Borgia: Faith and Fear” is that Fontana and executive producer Barry Levinson made the curious decision to let their lead actors use their native accents. This means that John Doman's Rodrigo Borgia, a Spanish cardinal who used an Italianate version of the family name Borja while orchestrating his rise in Rome, sounds a whole lot like Police Commissioner William Rawls from “The Wire.” But that is entirely appropriate, because Rodrigo, who succeeded Pope Innocent VIII to become Pope Alexander VI in 1492, is roughly on the same moral plain as Doman's dependably corrupt Rawls. Alexander VI was more crime boss than pope: having fathered four children, including his consigliere Cesare (Mark Ryder) and daughter/political pawn Lucrezia (Isolda Dychauk), he spent most of his free time in bed with his lover Giulia Farnese (Marta Gastini) when he was not skimming money into the family coffers.
Despite the higher profile of Jordan's series, Fontana is on the mark in a few important areas with “Borgia: Faith and Fear.” These include the casting of Gastini, whose dark eyes and fair features closely resemble historical descriptions of Giulia; and the accurate depictions of Vatican City at the end of the 15th century, including the fifth century St. Peter's Basilica before it was torn down. Beyond that, “Borgia: Faith and Fear,” which includes all 12 episodes of the first season and a “making of” documentary, is packed with lurid, lascivious, bloody fun — a good time and not exactly Sunday school material.
— George Lang