Professor Umberto Eco once rather whimsically remarked that he started writing his best-selling 1980 novel "The Name of the Rose" because he "felt like poisoning a monk."
Some of that subtle humor permeates his book, the only long work I ever read at a single sitting. When the lengthy medieval murder mystery came out in paperback, I thought I'd give it a try, figuring if I didn't like the first fifty pages or so, I could always toss it aside. I read straight through the night, 600 or more pages, mostly lying on the couch while my bemused wife called out to me several times wondering if I was ever going to sleep. Fortunately, it was a summer vacation, and I could get away with that sort of thing.
The novel was a wonder. It combined a dark atmosphere with suspense, politics, romance, and, in a particularly symbolic way, a look at the relationship between the Church and Man. Eco's field is semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, so it was natural that he should ground his first book in multi-levels of meaning. Like the flower called the rose, the book unfolds in many layers. So, when Hollywood announced a movie version in 1986, it delighted me, and I looked forward to it with eager anticipation. But I found myself mildly disappointed when I finally did see it, French film director Jean-Jacques Annaud ("Quest for Fire," "The Bear," "Enemy at the Gates," "Two Brothers") choosing to concentrate almost exclusively on the story's melodramatics and atmosphere rather than on its deeper, metaphoric ideas. Oh, well; the movie is still intriguing, especially when it stars one of the screen's most magnetic actors, Sean Connery, and WB presents it in high-definition Blu-ray picture and sound.
Of course, how you accept an English monk with a Scottish accent and the mind of a Sherlock Holmes nosing about in a fourteenth-century Italian monastery is another question. Film critic Rex Reed thought Connery looked ridiculous in a pair of sandals. Oh, well, again.
The beginnings of the plot, at least, follow Eco's book. In Eco's fiction, the Catholic Church convenes a council to debate the merits of Church wealth. The primary question is "Did Christ own the clothes that he wore?" Representatives of the Franciscans, a mendicant Church order, are to argue in favor of the Church renouncing its riches. The Papal authorities are to hear them and consider the case. The year is 1327, and the Council will meet at an ancient Church monastery in Northern Italy, the setting for the story. Among the first Franciscan delegates to arrive at the abbey are Father William of Baskerville (Connery) and his young German novice and assistant, Adso of Melk (Christian Slater). No sooner do William and Adso arrive than they encounter a mysterious death.
The Abbot (Michael Lonsdale) confides to William that he cannot understand how one of his Benedictine monks could have died. The monk apparently fell from a tower window locked from the inside. Knowing that William has had some experience in investigative matters, the Abbot asks William for help in resolving the matter before the Pope's representatives arrive. Thus do we learn that Father William is a kind of medieval Sherlock Holmes. Of course, his name should have been our first clue: William of Baskerville. He even says to Adso, his Dr. Watson, "It's elementary." Well, at least he doesn't declare, "The game's afoot."
Anyway, while William and Adso are investigating the first death, yet another death occurs, this one less easy to explain away as an accident: They find a monk drowned in a vat of pig's blood. The Abbot believes the devil is at work, and the abbey's monks think it's the beginning of the Apocalypse. William, perhaps more practical than he is entirely spiritual, thinks otherwise.
Both victims were translators and copyists in the abbey's scriptorium, the abbey renowned for its supposedly vast library. But where, wonders William, are the books? The blind librarian, a fellow named Jorge de Burgos (Feodor Chaliapin, Jr.), and his aide, Malachia (Volker Prechtel), will allow no one to see the books. Odd, thinks William. Why are they keeping the books secret? Are they dangerous? And, why are they so firmly set against any form of laughter or mirth?
Then a third death occurs, again a clear case of murder: Another translator, found drowned in his bath. And it is about this time that two other events of consequence transpire. First, a beautiful young peasant woman, known only as "the Girl" (Valentina Vargas), seduces young Adso, a development that greatly disturbs the novice, wreaks havoc with his conscience, and confuses his spirit. Not only is he unclear on the line between love and lust, he must question all the more the Church's attitude toward the poor. William counsels him, "How peaceful life would be without love, Adso, how safe, how tranquil, and how dull."
Second, the Church's High Inquisitor, Bernardo Gui (F. Murray Abraham), arrives at the abbey to take charge of the case. He instills fear in everyone and quickly comes to the conclusion that the fatalities are, indeed, the work of the archfiend, and that they involve several members of the abbey, as well as the Girl. Anyone who disputes him risks being condemned to death. William must solve the case in order to save innocent lives, but a past experience with Gui gives him pause. The heretofore unflappable William, it seems, has his own skeletons in the closet, old wounds that have never healed, old fears that have never died.
The best parts of the movie are its atmosphere and its characters. The story line, I'm afraid, is rather easy to see in advance, the denouement too simple, and the reason for all the fuss rather feeble, not to say improbable. But the attention to period detail in matters of costume, makeup, and sets make the film a compelling watch. For authenticity, the filmmakers shot most of the inside of the abbey in a former Cistercian monastery in Germany, while they built the exteriors on a hillside in Italy, following the book's descriptions. It's a wonderfully big, dark, creepy place. One can attribute the movie's best scene, in fact, to its set design, the inside of the forbidden library at night, a labyrinth of rooms and staircases reminiscent of those drawings by E.M. Escher where doors and pathways lead paradoxically back on themselves. The old abbey is filled with secret rooms, dark catacombs, and the bones of dead ancestors. And director Annaud is shrewd enough to confine the majority of his action to the nighttime or within the abbey's dimly (and naturally) lit interior.
If the abbey is weird and wonderful, the characters are even better. Annaud says he chose all of the actors for their looks, and with the exception of Connery, whom he probably wanted for his star power, this is undoubtedly true. Connery is at his most charming, establishing a character as much like Indy's dad in "The Last Crusade" as Sherlock Holmes. He is strict, demanding, seemingly unemotional, given to sensible, pragmatic decisions, with a keen eye for detail. Yet he is not without his droll, even mischievous side, which is a concern to the far more sober-minded Benedictine monks with whom he's trying to work. It's one of Connery's better roles, sandals or no sandals.
The supporting cast is no less formidable. Slater, for instance, was only fifteen at the time of production, and this was but his second big-screen appearance (having previously done several years of television work). He is remarkably innocent in appearance, no doubt the reason the filmmakers chose him for the role, and restrained in his delivery; yet as the story progresses, we see him mature immeasurably. It's a good performance for a young lad.
As the High Inquisitor, Abraham is evil incarnate. Moreover, he is all the more evil for seeing himself as doing the upstanding work of God. He is no hypocrite. He simply believes he's right. Scary guy. There is nothing more dangerous than a closed mind, and in this medieval world the closed mind is the norm. I will resist the temptation to extend that argument to the present day, but it was certainly one of Eco's intentions. The only trouble with Abraham is that he isn't on screen long enough. He merely shows up and leaves before we can really get to hate him.
Valentina Vargas as the Girl is gorgeous, but she's mystifying as well, never saying a word. Although in Eco's book she is only one of several references to the title, the beautiful rose without a name, in the movie she becomes almost the whole show. She is like a wild and sensuous beast, but it remains unclear if she is dumb as in mute or dumb as in stupid. Certainly, she represents the ignorant peasant of the day, but it doesn't explain her quiet, impulsive, lascivious behavior.
William Hickey, bizarre as always, plays an old monk, Ubertino de Casale, accused of heresy and hiding out in the abbey. Just listening to him speak in his exaggerated vocal tones is an occasion either for wonder or embarrassment. You never know if the guy really does talk this way or whether he's putting us all on. Michael Lonsdale's Abbot is a model of bureaucratic efficiency. He seems less concerned about the death of his monks than with what the Church will think of him as a consequence. And Ron Perlman plays a hunchback, Salvatore, straight out of Victor Hugo, complete with a prosthetic hump and putty face, a single, dangling tooth in his head, and a penchant for eating rats and talking gibberish.
The rest of the cast, mostly bit players filling in as monks, have distinctive faces, to say the least. What's more, they have the goofiest haircuts since Larry, Moe, and Curly. The director tells us the haircuts, like the costumes, are faithful to the era. I'll take his word for it.
OK, the worst for last: If you don't take to the star, the atmosphere of the old abbey, or the strangeness of the characters, you probably won't like the film. It's a gloomy affair for the most part and moves at a relatively slow pace. To be fair, however, one might think of this tempo as deliberate rather than slow, the director suggesting that life in an earlier period, especially in a monastery, moved far less quickly than it does for most of us today. Taken in this light, and disregarding what I consider a ludicrous resolution to the mystery, the movie can be quite absorbing. In fact, I was more than a little moved by the closing scene. I just wish the director had placed more emphasis on the book's themes about truth and light, societal differences, and Man's place in the universe. So, for the third time, a reluctant "Oh, well."
The film is, as I've said, very dark, both literally and figuratively. This darkness does not always provide the best detail in the dim, naturalistic lighting the director insists upon using throughout the monastery sets. There is also a light grain that appears to be a part of the original film stock; it comes and goes, sometimes rendering the picture quite noticeably gritty in wide expanses of sky. Other than that, the dual-layer BD50, MPEG-4/AVC transfer holds up nicely in reproducing the 1.85:1 ratio image in high definition. The clarity and definition are a little soft, and black levels are not the deepest, but, again, considering the director used a good deal of natural lighting, we might expect this. Facial tones vary from extremely natural to dusky and reddish at times.
The disc's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound doesn't have any heavy lifting to do, but as the film progresses you may become more and more impressed with its subtlety. The stereo spread is not particularly wide, but it does convey some pleasing noises left and right when occasion demands. More to the point, you won't hear much from the rear speakers for the first few minutes; yet when the old abbey comes to life with the chants and choirs of monks, the resonance richly fills the listening area. Equally as effective are the sounds of footsteps, running water, wind, and night birds. Add to the delicate rear-channel ambience a clear, clean midrange, a robust bass, and a reasonably strong dynamic impact, and you get a fairly impressive aural experience.
I enjoyed the extras almost as much as the feature presentation. The audio commentary with director Jean-Jacques Annaud is thoughtful and informed. There's a forty-three minute making-of documentary, made at the time of the film's production, "The Abbey of Crime: Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose," that is more than the usual extended promo and actually provides some insight into the making of the film. And an all-new, sixteen-minute photo video journey with Annaud shows the lighter side of the French director.
The bonuses wrap with thirty-three scene selections; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English, French, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Czech, and Hungarian spoken languages; French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Czech, Danish, Finnish, Hungarian, Polish, Swedish, and Norwegian subtitles; and English and Italian captions for the hearing impaired. The Blu-ray disc comes enclosed in a flimsy Eco-case designed to do a first-rate job saving plastic and, thus, saving the world, while doing a second-rate job protecting the case's contents.
I have to admit that "The Name of the Rose" is rather more impressive in its atmosphere than in its ideas. The book went a lot further in developing character relationships and enriching our understanding of the medieval mind. Director Annaud's vision of the novel spends so much time on the authenticity of its costumes and settings, it rather forgets to get on with its thoughts.
That said, I enjoyed the look and feel of the movie, and I especially liked Connery's charismatic monk. It was enough to entertain me this repeat time around a bit more than it entertained me the first few times I saw it. Having forgotten much of the book by now, anyway, I was able to look at the movie with a less-biased attitude. "The Name of the Rose" is an unusual film, to be sure, yet at the same time it may connect with a modern sensibility. People are still afraid of the truth, which is what the substance of this film is all about.