I just gorged on a 2011 political thriller from Belgian television called “Salamander”. It reminded me of post-Watergate thrillers like “The Parallax View,” but with the added twist that many characters share an earnest fear that the country itself might disintegrate if too much dirty laundry becomes public. I found this kind of shocking, and then I remembered that Belgium is made up of different ethnic regions. I guess they still have nightmares that what is now happening in Iraq could happen there. To which I would like to give this comfort and reassurance – you don’t have anything to worry about unless the U.S. invades because we want to “liberate” you. So go ahead and get a good night’s sleep.
Back to the TV series: it begins when 66 safety deposit boxes belonging to members of Belgium’s power elite get robbed, but the bank that housed the boxes, and the victims themselves, seek to suppress any police investigation. This doesn’t stop our honest, bull-headed, and idealistic hero, a cop named Gerardi, from plowing on ahead, especially when several related murders happen. Who is behind the robbery, and why are they going after these 66 people? And what is the special connection, besides wealth and power, that binds them together? The mini-series, which has 12 episodes in all, does a good job of dramatizing the various power centers that get involved, and in showing how they react under stress. Our hero is soon targeted by powerful forces that want to stop him, but the script gives him some creditable allies – as he would need, not just to succeed, but to survive.
This is a handsome production, and I enjoyed the mise-en-scene, not having seen anything produced in Belgium before. Director Frank van Mechelen keeps the pace brisk, but not frantic, which helps pull the viewer into the story. The entire cast is solid. But I do have some complaints (I always do!) – The forces of evil in stories like this always take out a lot of sympathetic people once they “know too much,” but I think this plot device is overused in “Salamander.” Several characters who have their guard up prove to be frustratingly easy targets. This series is also “Old School” when it comes to gay characters. That means no speaking part for a gay character – unless you count that loathsome boy-rapist who works in the orphanage. (FYI – he is NOT a priest!) Gay sex does appear, when it rears its shocking head late in the series as part of a blackmail scheme. Shocking! Finally, while the fascist ideology of the villains is nicely sketched in, a deep unease with the public learning the truth hobbles the script’s commitment to democracy. This is perhaps why the press plays almost no role at all in “Salamander’s” long and drawn out battle for the future of an entire nation.
Still, worth a look!