#430: The Name of the Rose

A muddled medieval multiple murder mystery with morose monks

Initial Release: 1986
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud

Umberto Eco was a medievalist and philosopher who was big on semiotics, which is essentially the study of signs and symbols and how we assign and derive meaning from them. He was a prolific author whose works were dense and complex. No greater example can be found of all of his particular talents than in his novel The Name of the Rose, a novel that layers a murder mystery with historical and philosophical themes; the novel proved popular enough to warrant a film, and here we are today, watching Sean Connery and a fetal Christian Slater try to unravel the secret behind a series of murders.

In short: in 1327, Adso, a young Franciscan novice and his mentor, friar William of Baskerville, arrive ahead of a Franciscan delegation to a Benedictine abbey in northern Italy, which is hosting a debate between the Franciscans and papal delegates over whether the poverty of Jesus Christ necessarily must be emulated by the church. Right away it becomes clear that something is wrong when William notices the grave of a recently deceased monk, famous for his illuminated manuscripts; as William used to work with the Inquisition, the abbot puts him in charge of determining whether his death was caused by supernatural forces. Though he determines that the death was a suicide, it’s not long before another body turns up, and this one is most certainly murder.

“Aha!” he says, and yet the clue he found is just as much of a mystery.

While William and Adso have leave to look into the murder, they soon start running into roadblocks: the abbey itself is venal and corrupt, an ostentatious, secretive sanctuary that throws scraps to the nearly-feral common people living outside its walls (which doesn’t bode well for the Franciscans, who are convinced the Pope means to crush them.) Many of its members are physically and personally grotesque; the assistant librarian alone is a profoundly creepy, pale ball of dough with a taste for teenage boys. As the body count starts to climb, it soon becomes clear that a mysterious book written in Greek is the core of the mystery, and finding that book might help find the killer.

Unfortunately this film seems to revel in medieval grotesquerie but can’t back it up with a coherent plotline. The thread of the mystery at times seems to go nowhere, and often it feels like William has no more idea of what’s going on than the audience. There’s an element of the gothic as an ancient, labyrinthine library, is uncovered, full of death traps like something out of Dark Souls; this Escherian maze serves as the staging ground for the final confrontation, but it’s symbolic of the film’s plot: potentially storing brilliance, but confused and meandering and full of pitfalls.

No, that thread isn’t going to help you understand this movie better either.

It’s difficult to find a likeable character in this film, either: William is a genial enough fellow, but he makes it clear that he’s more interested in the intellectual challenge than the human element. Christian Slater’s Adso is a cypher, little more than an audience surrogate (at least until the girl he likes, as wordless as the other villagers, seduces him) with no real characterization besides “dumb horny teenage boy.” We also get Ron Perlman as Salvatore, a bestial cartoon of a disabled monk who lurches about speaking gibberish in three languages while also hiding a dark past as part of a sect of radical heretics who burned down ostentatious churches and murdered rich arch-bishops; he’s creepy and unsettling and deliberately unsympathetic in such a way that I found him quite offensive.

This is a movie that wants to be good. But it can’t quite live up to the reputation of its source material (which, for the record, I also found a bit masturbatory, but that’s neither here or there.) It’s got all the elements for a good film, except for a worthy script that can tie it all together. It spends the whole film building up the debate between the Franciscans and the rich papal delegates and does nothing with it — and that’s the least of its sins. You’re better off watching old episodes of Cadfael.

— June❤

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