I’ve taken two summer vacations this year – one in Italy and the other in France — via two mesmerizing thrillers that couldn’t be more different. Each is on Amazon Prime.
The Inspector Vivaldi Mysteries, set in Trieste, stars a leading man in his late 70s who I am now totally in love with, an Italian “silver fox.” I won’t bother trying to describe the multiple murder plot that drives the nine episodes of the series because what really drives this extended tale are personal stories: the relationship between the Inspector and his soon-to-be-married son, who works alongside him at police headquarters; the relationship between Vivaldi and his wife, who has left him after decades of marriage, and the relationship between Vivaldi and his best friend, a former cop now living on a boat, for reasons we don’t understand.
Lando Buzzanca, as Federico Vivaldi, is perfection. He is depicted as an old-school cop in a modern world, a mix of macho and wounded macho. It’s irresistible. To tell you more about the other people in his life would be to ruin the pleasure of discovering them for yourself. It’s not very violent but always intriguing , and now streaming on Amazon. And I can only suggest that you do yourself a favor, open a bottle of wine, stretch out on your sofa and discover the pleasures of Inspector Vivaldi yourself.
Then there is The Bureau, in its 5th season, a much darker series, which NPR critic John Powers compared to “Homeland” and called, “the best series in the world right now.” It totally gripped me. Reputed to be based on true stories, and inspired by contemporary events, this very French spy thriller follows the daily lives and missions of the country’s external security service – France’s equivalent of the CIA — whose agents are sent to key locations around the world. They are trained to live under false identities for years, seek out and identify potential sources, and turn them into spies for France.
The first two seasons are mostly focused on intelligence officer Guillaume Debailly, code named “Malotru,” who is recalled to Paris headquarters after six years in Syria. We watch him as he tries to reconnect to his daughter, ex-wife, colleagues and, unexpectedly, his married lover from Syria, the beautiful Nadia, who has no idea he’s a secret agent.
We also meet The Bureau’s key bureaucrats who work out of small, corporate offices where there is lots of glass, lots of maps, lots of photos of people pinned on the wall and everyone is on a computer. In fact, the miraculous capabilities of the Bureau’s young computer geeks make one think that 1984 is already here.
The action is with the agents who find themselves in Iran, Turkey, Moscow, Ukraine, Syria, Thailand, Algeria, and other mid-east hotspots. Though there are untold betrayals, beatings, interrogations, seductions and assassinations, the entire cast is dedicated to under-acting. Which makes it a lot more difficult to see what is coming and what people are really thinking and feeling. So the series is both hot and cool at the same time.
The plot is totally bewildering and, at first, Molotrou, who vaguely resembles Yves Montand, played by Mathieu Kassovitz, doesn’t seem particularly alluring. And then, sometime during The Bureau’s first season, you can’t stop watching and you’re not sure why.
One of the reasons, I think, is the many and complex use of women in the series. They lead unconventional lives and play unconventional roles. Are they heroines or villains? Are they good or terrible at their jobs? Are they sympathetic or unlovable? Yes and no. All of the above. The more you get to know them, the more they defy every cliché. And while I often find the plot lines improbable, I find the characters, utterly believable and compelling.
By the 5th season, you can barely recall the plot and characters that gripped you in the first season. Everything has become much more diffuse and complicated. Each episode in each season brings someone who was in the background to the foreground. Suddenly a fat nebbish-seeming bureaucrat, chained to his desk in Season One, is sitting in a humvee in the Mideast, trying to overcome his fears about being shot. He is the most unlikely spy you’ve ever seen. And Sara Giradeau, the skinny recruit sent to Iran who hops into bed with a variety of men, becomes admirably tougher than you could have imagined.
It goes without saying that there is a lot of double crossing. We do not know until the very end, who is an agent, a spy, a friend of France, an enemy or Frenemy. American CIA officers in France are also very much part of the plot. But what I do know is that I couldn’t wait to see the next season and next episode.
If you are looking for streaming binges to help tide you through your endless hours at home, put these two series at the top of your list.
Top Bigstock photo: Miramare near Trieste, northeastern Italy, Europe.