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The Name of the Rose

The Name of the Rose - 1986

Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud

Written by Andrew Birkin, Gérard Brach, Howard Franklin & Alain Godard
Based on a novel by Umberto Eco

Starring Sean Connery, F. Murray Abraham, Feodor Chaliapin Jr., William Hickey
Michael Lonsdale, Ron Perlman, Christian Slater & Valentina Vargas

I must confess to having never read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, but I'd imagine it sneaks in a little more theology than this adaptation does - take away this movie's fascinating setting (a 14th century Benedictine abbey in Northern Italy) and it would conform to any number of mystery films or police procedural dramas made during the 1980s. Still, it does posit something interesting by it's close, by having many of it's wise characters claim that William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) has strayed from the path of eternal truth by relying soley on facts and reality. Furthermore, it charges that his love of what's real, and proving what is no doubt factual, only serves to inflame his vanity. That, I find interesting. What would it benefit mankind if we could travel back in time and record the life of Jesus Christ on video camera? We'd be closer to finding out every fact, but I suspect the wisdom which has been left through what is probably mythical is more important to mankind's spiritual wellbeing. Our search for a definition of what's real only serves to make humanity more vainglorious, and perhaps we've strayed too far from the path of natural beauty, and our capacity for wisdom, poetry and most of all love. Still - there are some suspicious deaths here that need solving, regardless.

William and his young novice, Adso of Melk (Christian Slater) have arrived at the aforementioned abbey to partake in a theological conference, but William's Sherlock Holmes-like powers of deduction immediately give rise to concerns about a recent death. The Abbot (Michael Lonsdale) confirms that a young illustrator, Adelmo of Otranto (Lars Bodin-Jorgensen) has fallen to his death in a mysterious manner. While the mystery is seemingly solved by William in short order, more deaths follow - in much more mysterious fashion, but with the recurring feature of the victims having blackened tongues and fingers. On their way is the much feared (and less fact-oriented) Inquisition and Inquisitor Bernard Gui (F. Murray Abraham). To make sense of it all, and save past heretics Salvator (Ron Perlman), Remigio de Varagine (Helmut Qualtinger) along with a filthy (in more ways than one) peasant girl (Valentina Vargas), William and his 'Watson' must gain entrance to a secret hidden within the Abbey's ancient library. All of this is told to us via an old narrator - an aged Adso (Dwight Weist) pondering this notable happening, and getting nostalgic about the filthy peasant girl - whom he'll never forget, despite never even knowing her name.

Yes - that was an erotic interlude. Christian Slater was only 16-years-old when playing this early breakthrough role - so he's nowhere near 'sex object' territory, but Valentina Vargas, in her early 20s, really takes charge of the moment and retains the focus throughout. Jean-Jacques Annaud decided to let the actress improvise the entire scene, giving it a spontenaity which definitely feels real, and Slater knew nothing of how it would play out. It's a rare moment in the film where our focus isn't completley on the mysterious deaths and William's search for the truth - and it's one of the film's most memorable scenes. Ironically, it was Sean Connery who was often touted the be the sexiest man going around during the 1980s - not even baldness and hints of a violent mysogynistic personality could slow do anything to dampen that label. He aquits himself marvellously in The Name of the Rose, and I have to grant that it's one of his most pleasing performances. (Go back and look at 1973 Sidney Lumet-directed film The Offence for a really amazing Sean Connery performance that has been forgotten over the years.) Michael Lonsdale, William Hickey, F. Murray Abraham and Ron Perlman also give this film great service - the material seems to bring out the best in most of the actors in it.

Fulls marks go to how the film looks, with it's imposing exteriors constructed on a hilltop outside Rome (the largest constructed since those of Cleopatra in the early 60s) and interiors in Eberbach Abbey, Germany. Tonino Delli Colli, in between Felini films, mutes everything light-wise, and the film is dominated by earthy tones which reflect this dark period of the late middle ages. Filth permeates absolutely everything, and most characters are deformed and misshapen in some way. Ron Perlman's make-up effects give him a severe appearence (make-up artist Hasso von Hugo won a BAFTA for his troubles), and Feodor Chaliapin Jr. (as the ancient Jorge de Burgos) stares right through us - his cataracts giving him a ghostly visage. Inside the Abbey's library, the production and set designers have created a vision of antiquity which would make anyone interested in history want to reach out and touch already ancient manuscripts. Gabriella Pescucci's costume design rises to the occasion. Everything I'd want to get out of The Name of the Rose visually is most adequately and pleasingly presented throughout the entire film.

Although the film is clear about which person is a villain, and which is essentially good, it's not always crystal clear as to what has set the events we're seeing in motion. The first death in the abbey and the subsequent deaths don't have a clearly recognizable series of actions and reactions once we find out what has happened, and I fear most people would probably walk away from this not being completely sure they've completely understood it. It's a little convoluted is what I'm saying, and I think perhaps a little clarity has been lost when condensing the novel into 130-minutes. The meaning though, is essentially clear, and relates to the importance of knowledge and how it can be difficult to reconcile knowledge with someone's specific worldview. Overall, the film takes place amongst several orders of monks that have come to discuss their worldview in a place with a hidden, ancient library - storing generations worth of knowledge and wisdom. William prizes this, above his very sense of humanity and charity as far as Adso is concerned. Adso would choose to save a person if it meant losing an ancient text - but for William, the value of those two can't be easily compared.

The Name of the Rose is surely a film that would benefit from multiple viewings, and a little more theosophical musing over mystery solving. Nontheless, I can't deny that it's a very well made film, with a cast of venerated actors from Europe and the U.S. who mostly give performances that elevate it. It's enjoyable to watch, because it has that aura of authenticity about it when it comes to 14th Century monkhood - many customs are played out within it that are interesting, and special attention has been paid to every aspect of long-lost modes of living. It weighs up the worth of what's true, especially relevent in the awful presence of the Inquisition, which somehow overlooked the fact that people will confess to completely fabricated sins under torture. I've never understood how that couldn't be self-evident to even the simplest of people. I'd say it's probably lost a little from being a "palimpsest" of Umberto Eco's novel (I'd say you're being a little pretentious throwing words like that around in your opening credits.) Christian Slater's performance isn't that strong, but when weighed up side by side, this film's good points outweigh it's bad by a fair margin. I can easily see it as something I'd rate more highly with more viewings under my belt.