Seville, circa 1580. Movistar Plus flagship series “The Plague” begins with the camera gliding near ground level alongside a doctor and a merchant who slop down a muddy lane past hovels and their soiled occupants. It is a shot of technical virtuosity, typical of the kinetic style of director Alberto Rodriguez, but more akin to the big screen than the small.
As the camera pulls back to reveal a shantytown outside a dazzling Seville, the viewer begins to realize the scale of “The Plague,” which makes its world premiere at Spain’s San Sebastian Film Festival later in September, the first TV series in the fest’s official selection.
With world sales rights handled by Sky Vision, “The Plague’s” scale also says much about the production and artistic ambitions of Movistar Plus, the pay TV unit of European telco giant Telefonica, whose 2016 revenues of €52 billion ($62.4 billion) were seven times that of Netflix ($8.83 billion).
Series creator Rodriguez and his long-time producer, José Antonio Felez at Madrid-based Atípica Films (“Unit 7,” “Marshland” and “Smoke and Mirrors”), had originally imagined “The Plague” as a “high-budget feature film,” Felez recalls.
But when they talked to Movistar Plus, they decided to turn it into a TV series.
“We were able to aim for a story which in all senses — scripts, preparation, the shoot, post-production — was nearer to cinema than conventional TV,” he says.
“The Plague” is Spanish Empire noir, featuring Mateo (Pablo Molinero), a heretic condemned by the Inquisition to burn at the stake. But when an Inquisition member is found murdered in what seems like a demonic ritual, Mateo, a man of culture and deep deductive powers, is offered absolution if he catches the killer.
His investigations take him to Seville’s shanty town, brothels, markets, the palatial splendor of the rich and a city ravaged by huge social gulfs, misery and famine and sustained by slavery, child labor and corruption.
A six-hour series, “The Plague” used 130 locations, a 200-technician crew, 2,000 extras and vfx to re-create 1580s Seville. Its budget of $1.8 million per episode ranks alongside high-end Canal Plus France series such as “Séction Zero,” produced by Luc Besson.
“Alberto [Rodriguez] works a lot on [conflict]. In ‘The Plague,’ he would say: ‘You have to suggest you’re hiding something,’” says Molinero.
“Everything for many people was a game of poker with the gold from the New World on the table.”
For Rodriguez, “the series has different layers for different audiences. Those viewers who want more will find more.” Domingo Corral, Movistar Plus original fiction director, agrees, noting that “The Sopranos” marked a “before-and-after” in TV drama. “We try to tell stories to thrill spectators but also reflect a reality. What’s fiction finally for? It helps you understand the world you’re in or at least ask questions about it.”
The helmer adds, “The series portrays 16th century Seville from a different viewpoint: Life in the streets as it really was. It’s like a stroll through history with a street view.”
One further attraction of “The Plague” was setting the series at a historical tipping-point, right before the decline of the Spanish Empire, a time when Seville was the center of the world and the port of entry for gold from the New World.
“The Plague” “is a detective story, but at the bottom it’s about conflicts, power, politics, religion … that took place in a distant era but could be transferred to the present,” says Rodriguez.
For Felez, “ ‘The Plague’ is a metaphor. The plague is ignorance. It is about the human race, what we are capable of.”