The blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I rejoin for another movie title that began its life between a book cover for our parallel post series. Thankfully closing out March, the first quarter of 2014, and winter. Well, at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere. Sorry about that, Rachel. 😉 This time we’ll examine the first novel by Italian author Umberto Eco.
The Name of the Rose, a historical murder mystery set in an Italian monastery in the year 1327. As usual, the wordy one will examine the novel later adapted to film, which I will review. First published in Italian in 1980 under the title Il nome della rosa, the novel was translated by William Weaver to English in 1983. For my part, I’ll review its 1986 film. Rachel’s book review can be found here:
A brief synopsis of the film: Adso of Melk, looking back on his long scholarly life, recounts his turning point as a young novice. Early in the 14th Century, he and his mentor, the esteemed Franciscan friar William of Baskerville, arrive at a notable Benedictine abbey in Northern Italy for an important theological Church conference. They find a community clearly troubled by a mysterious death that occurred ahead of their arrival. William, widely known for his deductive and analytic mind, confronts the worried Abbot and gains permission to investigate the death of the young illuminator. At first, suicide is suspected. But, over the next few days several other bizarre deaths occur. Everything is not what it seems in the abbey. Then, as an old adversary of William’s arrives, the stakes become more dire for both the teacher and his learner seeking the truth of the matter.
[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]
“Laughter kills fear, and without fear there can be no faith because without fear of the Devil, there is no more need of God.”
It’s with some pride I picked this somewhat obscure movie title (one that thankfully received high-def treatment in 2011). Being that I was one of the very few who actually saw it first run in theaters back in the 80s. What can I say? It’s a penchant of mine. Per Wikipedia, “The film did poorly at the box office in the United States, playing at only 176 theatres and grossing only $7.2 million in return on a $17 million budget.” I enjoyed it then, as I continue to do so now.
Probably the one chief aspect of a good historic period piece is that it’s immersive. The author Umberto Eco accomplished that with a very descriptive story using a medieval setting on the page. And director Jean-Jacques Annaud (Quest for Fire, Enemy at the Gates) may have done it one better with this film adaptation. I don’t say that lightly because The Name of the Rose was more agreeable on the big screen, at least for me. Usually, it’s the other way around, but here not.
While the novel was stylishly written (even if I don’t know a thing about native Italian verse), a ‘light’ read it’s not. Where the novelist’s tendency veered toward the expressively detailed, and go off on effusive tangents before returning to the mystery at hand, Annaud and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli beautifully shorthanded the human and surrounding landscape Eco wove with stunning visuals. Deftly employing the distinct characters of the story onto celluloid.
Translating the book’s setting, the cold mountainous region of Italy (with Germany’s Eberbach Abbey standing in for some striking interiors) was never better captured than here. Some of the largest sets since Cleopatra, built just outside of Rome, were constructed for the motion picture. They paid off. The monastery centers the film like none other. It dominates those all around the film, part of the real reason they were built that way.
To withstand weather, and people’s doubt in the church.
Immense buildings dedicated to God, which represent his power and importance in the world, and the puny stature of man dwarfed by it all. The cruel and capricious nature of Eco’s story never far away, especially within the walls of the abbey. In a location and setting that was just another formidable character in The Name of the Rose. And there are a load of them throughout the film.
“Who was she? Who was this creature that rose like the dawn, as bewitching as the moon, radiant as the sun, terrible as an army poised for battle?”
By the way, their initial greeting, when Sean and Drax, one of the better Bond villains of the Roger Moore era, give each other lip salutation, it sent all OO7 fans hearts aflutter.
Doesn’t take much to discern this tale of mystery was another variant of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed character of literature. William of Baskerville1 (Sean Connery portraying the antithesis of his most famous role) was an amalgam of Sherlock Holmes and William of Occam (who is readily known to those of us who’ve watched Contact). Add in Michael Lonsdale, F. Murray Abraham, William Hickey, Feodor Chaliapin Jr., Ron Perlman, and a 15-year-old Christian Slater2, and you had quite a cast to fill out Eco’s earthy roles.
Though it takes some patience, along with the usual clue watching, The Name of the Rose remains a more than worthy film to take in and enjoy. Primarily, through its fitting and most permeable attribute. Realism. It built an atmosphere where you feel the cold, the poverty, and the absolute and stern belief of its characters. Be they the poor or the clergy, whether Franciscan, Benedictine, or Dominican. The irony of this adaptation, and lack of immediate box office success, was the book it’s often compared with, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
Both related to mysteries tied to biblical reference and context, but only Brown’s (and Ron Howard’s) film caught fire.
The author’s unique and thoughtful plot, which introduced a portion of the enlightenment coming that would pull the dark out of the Dark Ages within its 600+ pages, as well as sui generis dialogue, were handled better than well by screenwriters Andrew Birkin, Gérard Brach, Howard Franklin, and Alain Godard in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s wonderful production.
All the actors delivered fine performances, particularly the elder statesman Connery (whose career was faltering a bit at this stage), along with the young Slater. Rising up against the inequity of the Church’s authority, to fight the shadowy conspiracy lying within the monastery, using only guile and intelligence, The Name of the Rose proved to be one of the most underrated movies of the 80s. I’d say that one of Sean’s best performances, in a career of them, helped to make that so.