Saturday, June 28, 2014

Netflix streaming tip: Frank van Mechelen's slam-bang political thriller via Belgium, SALAMANDER

I can't imagine that I'm the first to draw a parallel here, but if any of you recall the Belgian political crisis of 2010 through 2011 -- during which that little European country found itself with no actual governing body in place at all -- then I should think you'll be doubly interested in watching the succulent and tension-filled television series, SALAMANDER, from Belgium, which first aired in 2012. No, this series does not mirror the country's travails prior to finally forming a government that functioned again. What it does do, coming so close on the heels of a period that must have left many Belgians wondering just how -- and if -- their government really worked or even mattered, is to posit a theory of a small western nation in thrall and in hock to a coterie of wealthy and powerful men and women who effectively control the entire country -- and who will, of course, do whatever it takes to retain that control.

As directed by Frank van Mechelen (shown at right, who helmed all 12 episodes) and written by Bavo Dhooge and Ward Hulselmans, the series begins with a very well executed (and filmed) bank robbery in which the thieves open only certain safe deposit boxes and then take only -- and oddly -- jewelry and other "fence"-able items, along with all the personal papers stored within, but not any of the more valuable items so obviously available to them. How this robbery leads to an increasing and possibly near-complete breakdown in governmental function is the story that Salamander tells in a riveting and often surprising manner.

The ripples (well, more like waves) from this robbery begin expanding outwards almost immediately, as a police informant spills the beans of what he knows about the robbery to the inspector who becomes the hero of the series, a fellow named Paul Gerardi, an overworked family man with a rather old-fashioned sense of justice and morality. The actor who plays Gerardi, Filip Peeters (above), is a striking fellow with a full head of white hair and beard and a handsome, craggy face that, while mostly stoic, still manages to express volumes.

The series involves Gerardi almost immediately, while seeing to it that he is cut off time and again by everyone from the big bad boys (and girls) to his own police department and so must finally go rogue to learn what's going on, why, and by whom. To this end we grow closer to him and his family (that's his wife, Sarah, below, played by An Miller), as well as to his immediate boss, his ex-partner, some denizens of the local monastery, not to mention the creeps at the top of the heap (that's the head of the bank, shown above, played by Mike Verdrengh).

What makes the series so propulsive and watchable (it's the closest I've yet come to a complete binge) is the way the writers and director have woven this all together and how carefully and wisely they've dispensed just enough information to keep us and their hero stretching toward the truth of things.

The other ace-in-the-hole are the very fine characterizations of almost everybody we meet. Most are neither black nor white but fall firmly into that very human realm of folk trying to maintain their decency, and often losing it, in the face of power, money and the threat to their or their loved one's life. These would include the wife of one of the politicians marked for blackmail (Ann Ceurvels, above) and a fellow named Vic (played by Koen van Impe, below), one of the government's high-level underlings who seemingly goes from bad to good, while simply doing his job (though perhaps with a bit too much relish).

Whom we root for -- other than Gerardi, of course -- keeps changing, due to the level of bad behavior on view, and this is yet another key to the great success of Salamander. Some people do the right thing for the wrong reason, others the wrong for right, and so our understanding of human nature, while sometimes confounded, keeps growing. (That's Koen De Bouw, below, as the bank robber-in-chief.)

The series could occasionally move a bit faster, but because of the plot and its propulsive hold on us, this won't matter much in the end. There are evidently more seasons to come of the show, but this first one does indeed give us some closure. You won't go away feeling at all empty-handed.

Salamander -- in twelve 45-minute episodes (plan to spend nine hours total) and in Flemish with English subtitles -- can be screened via Netflix streaming, and probably elsewhere, too. It is, in the vernacular, a humdinger.

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