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Other monks will meet their deaths here. And they too will have blackened fingers. And blackened tongues.

The Name of the Rose
(1986)

(SPOILERS) Umberto Eco wasn’t awfully impressed by Jean Jacques-Annaud’s adaptation of his novel – or “palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel” as the opening titles announce – to the extent that he nixed further movie versions of his work. Later, he amended that view, calling it “a nice movie”. He also, for balance, labelled The Name of the Rose his worst novel – “I hate this book and I hope you hate it too”. Essentially, he was begrudging its renown at the expense of his later “superior” novels. I didn’t hate the novel, although I do prefer the movie, probably because I saw it first and it was everything I wanted from a medieval Sherlock Holmes movie set in a monastery and devoted to forbidden books, knowledge and opinions.

Annaud was a self-confessed medieval buff. He ensured authenticity was everything for his production, right down to grotesques out of Bruegel (and Bosch and Dore). I found this aspect entrancing on first viewing; the creation of an entirely immersive, foreboding world of centuries past. There’s a sense of danger and hesitancy everywhere, of fear of saying or intimating the wrong thing, even before F Murray Abraham’s inquisitor Bernado Gui rides in.

William: The only evidence I see of the devil is everyone’s desire to see him at work.

Presiding over the proceedings is Sean Connery, in the second of his 1986 career-resuscitating roles (the first being the also medieval, partly, Highlander). His William of Baskerville may have been modelled after Sherlock Holmes by Eco – hence the name – but there’s a vulnerability here we don’t see in the infallible Baker Street sleuth; William, we learn, was previously subjected to a charge of heresy by Gui and imprisoned (he recanted his “crime”). As poised and authoritative as Connery is in the role, he lends William an air of regret and failure, and of being unable to stand up to the ignorant dolts who would condemn the entire world to a state of regress.

Intrinsic to this is the nature of the murders themselves; they revolve around a rare text, one monks at the Benedictine abbey are keen to read, inevitably losing their lives as a consequence and frequently with blackened fingers. Their ranks are populated by such striking visages as Ron Perlman (with added hunchback as Salvatore), William Hickey (Ubertino de Casale) Michael Habeck (obese Berengar) and Feodor Chaliapin Jr (the blind Venerable Jorge de Burgos). Along with one-time Bond villain, the recently deceased Michael Lonsdale as the intimidated abbot. Christian Slater is very good as William’s innocent novice Adso of Melk, absent the ticks and grin that would characterise his roles from a few years hence. That he doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb is a commendation (in contrast to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, where everybody does).

Life in 1327 Italy is unforgiving enough without the hotbed of repressions, dark thoughts, dark deeds (sandals in the snow!) And then Gui shows up brandishing torture and burnings at the stake. It’s been suggested that Annaud opts for a “preposterously happy ending” but I don’t think it’s really such a sore (or black) thumb. Yes, it’s unlikely that the peasant girl should escape the stake (she earlier initiated Adso, so she gets a sympathy vote). Additionally so that Gui should meet an unfortunate end at the hands of revolting peasants (falling off a cliff and then getting impaled no less; I can only assume Joel Silver was taking notes). But in context of the grisliness going on, the first comes merely as a relief and the second just seems par for the course. I wouldn’t overstate the sunny turn.

William: All three died because of a book which kills, or for which men will kill.

William’s rational man riding a sea of superstition and ignorance makes for a powerfully compelling screen hero, the sort you’d like to see on further adventures (his learning enables a broad philosophy, betraying an easy-going tolerance of other viewpoints, such as in his assessment of Adso’s carnal encounter). As it is, the rising body count proves him right, but it’s the exploration of the labyrinth that really seizes the attention and imagination. It’s presented as an almost Escher-esque warren of stairs and disorientating, deceptive distances, above, below and around. It’s here that Aristotle’s Second Book of Poetics has been hidden, a rather innocuous volume for so much slaughter (Eco’s little joke – Jorge, behind it all, considers laughter a sin (“Can we laugh at God? The world would relapse into chaos”).

William: Have you ever known a place where God would have felt at home?

In William’s debates with his fellow monks, and up-against it attempts to invoke reason, there’s a powerful sense of a world of easily-buried truth and more so history. So making The Name of the Rose feel like a very relevant and current movie. Arbitrary rules and verdicts are enforced to maintain a prevailing narrative, and the punishment for speaking out is such that few ever do; if denounced, they tend to recant quickly. William’s yen is for “spiritually dangerous books”, but it may as well be for simple truth in a world gone mad.

The Name of the Rose didn’t muster much business in the US, but still made the equivalent of $182m (inflation-adjusted) globally. It’s that rare latter-day hit with a seamlessly integrated international cast. It also fetched Connery a BAFTA in the same year he snagged an Oscar for The Untouchables. It’s undoubtedly true that the subtleties of Eco’s novel are frequently lost (for example, Annaud’s camera seeks out the significance of the celestial orb used to kill Severinus, yet we’re aren’t to know its relation to the Seven Trumpets of The Book of Revelation). I’m of the view that the cinematic world Annaud conjures is so rich, so atmospheric and evocative, it more than makes up for any populist shortfalls. And no, I’m not going to watch the TV adaptation.




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