“The Borgias”–Bonfire of the Vanities

In the Season 2 finale of “The Borgias”, there is adultery happily engaged in by the beautiful Lucrezia, the fratricide of the favorite son of Pope Alexander VI (Jeremy Irons), the torture and death of the charismatic but delusional Savonarola (who spearheaded the original bonfire of the vanities), and the successful poisoning of the pope by his archrival’s deputy.

The ecclesiastical greed and hypocrisy in the Catholic Church drives the adrenaline of the Borgia family, an Italian/Spanish dynasty, to continue the campaign of corruption and murder in order to retain their position as the greatest force–religious or secular–in the entire Western world of the 15th century.  And how unashamed the Borgias are of their venal lives while most of Italy endures horrific poverty.

The series is rather closely based on history: the cunning of Pope Alexander VI and two (of three) sons and daughter by his beautiful but now middle-aged mistress.  A womanizing and vain man, Pope Alexander VI is determined to have his family remain unified in appearance if not in intention, all the while perpetrating lies, deception, and murder.

Like “The Tudors” which preceded “The Borgias”, the villains and antiheroes in this TV mini-series are obsessed with power at all cost, in the guise of religious devotion.  With Jeremy Irons as the sinister Alexander VI, Colm Fore as his archrival Cardinal della Rovere, and newcomers playing his sons and daughter, the series is outrageous when you least expect it (for example, Catherine Sforza’s exposure to the troops).   There is some poignant and moving dialogue as well.  In the powerful interchange between the pope and his older son Cesare, his son asks why his father always favored Juan yet was blind to his cruelty.  The distinctions, which are played out between what constitutes good intentions and bad, would yield a philosophical treatise on the nature of good and evil.  You will be thinking of scenes from this series long after the program has ended.  Another season is planned for 2013, so at least I can postpone my disappointment for now when the entertaining and provocative “Borgias” finally comes to an end!

“Margin Call”–Soulless Capitalism at Its Finest

An onslaught of “Occupy Wall Street” movies has been released in the last two years–think “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”, “Too Big to Fail”, “Up in the Air”, The Company Men”–in the wake of the financial meltdown of 2008.  “Margin Call” deserves to be among the classics,  which have focused on greed, power, and the vacuum resulting from gutting regulatory compliance. (My favorite among recent classics is “Glengarry Glen Ross”.)

The brainchild of director and screenwriter, J.C. Chandor, “Margin Call” is a slowly unfolding narrative about a risk management analyst, Eric Dale  (beautifully played by Stanley Tucci), on his way out of corporate America along with eighty percent of an unnamed broker/dealer (=Lehman Brothers??) who must lay off all but the most ambitious (and ruthless) employees.  Tucci’s character hands off a flash drive to a young analyst, Peter Sullivan (the remarkable Zachary Quinto of “Heroes” and “Star Trek” fame).  Sullivan is left with the unenviable task of realizing that the broker/dealer he works for is over-leveraged, based on  faulty assumptions of a proprietary predictive algorithm for mortgage securities. How timely is that?!

In an impeccable cast including Demi Moore as the embittered woman executive who has played by all the rules in a male-dominated company only to be the scapegoat, Kevin Spacey owns this movie.  While there are portraits of a range of power players all trying to survive in a game where only a few can continue to triumph, Kevin Spacey’s  character, Sam Rogers, is the conflicted, morally ambivalent trading floor manager whose curdling resentment of where he is and what he must do results in a deeply tragic, heartbreakingly lonely figure.

John Tuld (=Fuld of Lehman Brothers perhaps), the  CEO, denies that disastrous speculation is the death of his company.  In a brilliant, riveting scene Tuld (the almost-always villainous Jeremy Irons) announces the firm has no choice but to liquidate its mortgage securities by the end of the next trading day — a strategy that will destroy the financial well-being of  millions of Americans in the process.  There is no moral–only a logistical– dilemma for the corporation. How to avoid a devastating margin call translates to how fast can they dump the worthless paper they have been holding before word gets out on the street? They frantically start selling to customers knowing that what they are selling is worthless.

Although the film belongs to Spacey, Irons faces Spacey and indifferently mutters:  “It’s all just the same thing over and over; we can’t help ourselves. And you and I can’t control it, or stop it, or even slow it. Or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react. And we make a lot of money if we get it right. And we get left by the side of the road if we get it wrong. And there have always been and there always will be the same percentage of winners and losers. Happy foxes and sad sacks. Fat cats and starving dogs in this world. Yeah, there may be more of us today than there’s ever been. But the percentages-they stay exactly the same.”

Those may be the most memorable, debilitating and cold-blooded lines to ring in your ears long after the film has ended. I can’t stop thinking about them!