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THE NAME OF THE ROSE, 1986
Movie Review

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THE NAME OF THE ROSE,      MOVIE POSTERTHE NAME OF THE ROSE, 1986
Movie Reviews

Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud
Starring: Sean Connery, Christian Slater, F. Murray Abraham, Helmut Qualtinger, Elya Baskin, William Hickey, Ron Perlman
Review by Virginia De Witt


SYNOPSIS:

In 1327, William of Baskerville, a Franciscan monk and a young Benedictine novice, Adso of Melk arrive at an Italian abbey where William is to attend a conference on Church doctrine. The Abbot asks William confidentially to look into the recent, seemingly accidental death of young Brother Adelmo, an illuminator of manuscripts. The Abbot wants William to bring his expertise in reasoning and deduction to an investigation of the death, as he hopes to avoid speculation of demonic influence spreading at the Abbey and thus the involvement of the Inquisition, and its High Inquisitor, Bernardo Gui. Within a day or so, another body has been discovered, and then eventually another. William finally concludes that all the deaths involve contact with a controversial volume located somewhere in the Abbey’s library. The Abbot chooses to ignore William’s findings, once he hears them, and decides to welcome Bernardo Gui and the Inquisition to the Abbey. The Inquisitor then sets about finding scapegoats for the murders. William is corralled onto the Inquisitor’s panel but refuses to condemn the accused. They are found guilty regardless and William and Adso are spurred to finally locate the book at the heart of the mystery.

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REVIEW:

Umberto Eco’s novel, “The Name of the Rose”, was a surprise success on its publication in the early ‘80s. It was, after all, the work of a semiotics professor given to sometimes dense philosophic arguments about the nature of truth, and which featured much discussion of the burgeoning consciousness in the late medieval mind of the need for reason and rationality to play a role in life, particularly in matters of faith. As much as it was not an obvious candidate for a popular bestseller, it may have been an even less obvious choice for an adaptation to film, and, in fact, upon this movie’s release in 1986 it was not a commercial success. However, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s version of this unusual detective story is very much worth revisiting. The film begins with the disclaimer that what follows is a “palimpsest” of Eco’s novel, in other words an overwriting of the original book where only traces of the source material remain. It is necessarily a simpler telling of the story, which focuses more on narrative and plot twists, instead of the rather esoteric disputes of the book, but it still manages to be both intelligent and entertaining.

The film begins, as does the book, with the now elderly Adso recollecting the events in a brief opening narration. The action quickly takes over, however, and the film shifts to the ancient monastery in the Italian Alps. The uproar around the discovery of the young Adelmo’s body is already underway when William and Adso arrive, and the occupants of the monastery begin to reveal themselves to us. The international cast assembled is particularly well chosen and it seems a sure bet that Annaud and his casting director went well out of their way to find the most idiosyncratic faces they could to reflect an age when there was no plastic surgery or hair stylists, much less basic dental hygiene. The monks are wonderfully arresting in the portraits that Annuad presents of them here and the strangeness of their appearance does help to set this world apart from our own.

Annaud’s quest for authenticity is further aided by Dante Ferretti’s production design. The abbey shown is a set built for the film, but the attention to historical detail is meticulous. The centre piece of the film’s design, and of its mystery, is the labyrinthine library at the heart of the monastery. Ferretti does an extraordinary job of constructing this elaborate maze of staircases and barely illumined rooms which William and Adso must navigate if they are to solve the puzzle of the murders. It is a visual highlight of the film. Ferretti, along with Tonnino Delli Colli, the cinematographer, contributes greatly to ensuring that this cerebral novel comes to life.

As the shrewd William of Baskerville, a mature Sean Connery lends the film the authority of his presence. What is wonderful about Connery at this stage in his career is that he can command a scene by simply being in it. This unspoken command only serves to underline Williams’ dominance among the other brothers, and justifies their respect for him. Also, Connery brings a much needed warmth to the film, which might otherwise be too severe in its tone. Christian Slater has his introductory role here and he convincingly plays William’s naive foil, although the voice over at the beginning and end of the film, which is meant to be the older Adso, sounds far more like Connery than it does Slater. F. Murray Abraham as the High Inquisitor, Bernardo Gui, is a cold, scheming bureaucrat of the medieval Church and effectively provides the film with its prime villain.

“The Name of the Rose” is more than just a fascinating, medieval detective story, although it can be just that for the viewer. It provides an interesting, and entertaining, frame work in which to consider the relationship, and history, of reason and faith. It also alludes to some of the historic passions and disputes that Umberto Eco’s novel revels in. The crucial theme of “secret knowledge” predominates. Who should gain access to certain books, knowledge, thoughts and ideas is a pivotal question in the film, amongst others raised. Most importantly, though, it remains an enjoyable, thoughtful film that deserves rediscovery.

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