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Fontana raises bar with 'Borgia'

"Borgia: Faith and Fear," the series about a ruthless Renaissance pope, created by writer-producer Tom Fontana, has been shown on European cable television and Netflix. This week, the 12-episode series became available on DVD from Lionsgate.

(It is not to be confused with Showtime's "Borgias," starring Jeremy Irons, which chronicles the same scheming family and is scheduled to begin its second cable season April 8.)

Buffalo-born Fontana, 60, is known for his work on American television with "Homicide: Life on the Street," "Oz" and "St. Elsewhere." In "Faith and Fear," he is testing the waters overseas.

"I'll tell you the God's honest truth," said Fontana, "the networks don't seem to want to make shows that are outside their comfort zone. But I want to make shows that are outside my comfort zone, so I have gone all over the world in search of people that are willing to take a bigger risk than the networks will."

"Faith and Fear" is in production for its second season, with Fontana taping in Prague and Rome. It is directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, whose 2004 German speaking film "Downfall" chronicled the final 12 days of Adolph Hitler.

Showtime's "The Borgias" is from writer-director Neil Jordan of the "The Crying Game." Initial plans called for Jordan and Fontana to work together.

"I flew to Dublin to meet with Neil Jordan," said Fontana. "We had a perfectly lovely dinner, but we realized at this dinner that we wanted to make two completely different versions of this story. From that point on, I just decided to pretend that the other one doesn't exist. So I haven't watched it, I haven't read anything about it.

"It's like when I was doing 'Homicide' and 'NYPD Blue' came on the air," Fontana recalled. "I didn't want to watch 'NYPD Blue' -- not because I didn't respect (writer-producer) David Milch, but because I didn't want to be influenced by what he was doing on his show."

Fontana wrote the script in longhand. His website notes that he does not own or use a computer.

"I'm such a dinosaur," he said. "My office, when I was going back and forth to Prague last year, forced me to get an iPad, which I call the iThing. To me it's a monster I wrestle with."

Writing in longhand, he said, "is a very sensual experience. There's paper and there's pen, and you're touching something. And you can crumple it up and throw it across the room. ... I feel closer to the emotions."

In researching "Faith and Fear," Fontana dug deep into Vatican archives to examine documents and letters. The series is set in 1492 Rome. The cast, for the most part, is European.

Character actor John Doman plays the role of Rodrigo Borgia, a Spaniard who became Pope Alexander VI in 1455. Doman appeared in "The Wire," an HBO police drama that ran from 2002 to 2008. Actors Mark Ryder and Isolde Dychauk convincingly portray Borgia's son, Cesare, and daughter, Lucrezia, in part because of their striking resemblance to Doman and to each other.

Fontana described his R-rated "Faith and Fear" as "Oz" in papal clothes -- full of lust, greed and murders -- in a 2011 interview with CafeBabel.com, a European e-zine.

"Oz," the HBO series set within a maximum security prison somewhere in the United States, broke ground with its cast of extreme characters. Written and produced by Fontana, it ran from 1997 to 2003.

In creating "Faith and Fear," Fontana was motivated by two concerns.

"One was that, if you take faith out of the Catholic Church for a second, what you are left with is the Vatican Inc.," he said. "You're left with the brand, and what the brand sells is salvation."

His second concern was faith itself, a subject that Fontana finds fascinating. The characters of "Faith and Fear," he said, either possess a strong sense of faith and lose it over time, or have no faith and gain it over time.

And what about Fontana's own faith? Born on Buffalo's West Side, he attended Cathedral School and Canisius High School. In 1973 he graduated from Buffalo State College.

"I believe, but I don't believe every day," he said. "Sometimes I'm not feeling well and I think there is no God, or a baby dies and I think there is no God. And other days I go, oh, my God, there is a God."

News staff reporter Jane Kwiatkowski and Rich Heldenfels of McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.