It’s the work of the Devil. That’s what some say when a bizarre series of deaths strikes a 14th-century monastery. Others find links between the deaths and the book of Revelation. But Brother William of Baskerville thinks otherwise. He intends to find a murderer by using fact and reason – the tools of heresy.
Best Actor British Academy Award winner Sean Connery is wily William in this compelling adaptation of Umberto Eco’s bestseller. Christian Slater plays Adso, aide to the sleuthing cleric and a youth on the verge of sexual and intellectual awakening. F. Murray Abraham is arrogance incarnate as the Inquisitor. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud filmed this moody mystery at an actual 12th-century monastery where hooded faces loom like gargoyles.
eyelights: Ron Perlman. Sean Connery. the tight script. the pace. the cinematography. the production. the meticulous attention to detail. the Escher-like library maze.
eyesores: the oft-inscrutable low-level lighting.
“My dear Adso, we must not allow ourselves to be influenced by irrational rumors of the Antichrist, hmm? Let us instead exercise our brains and try to solve this tantalizing conundrum.”
‘The Name of the Rose’ is based on Umberto Eco’s extremely popular historical mystery novel (it was ranked 14th in a list of 100 books of the 20th century). It tells the tale of a friar who arrives at a 14th century Italian abbey to discover that there has been a mysterious death – at which point he takes upon himself to solve the enigma.
It takes us deep into the heart of the abbey, in particular, of its labyrinthine library and the politics taking place behind the scenes – as the leaders of its resident Benedictine order are convinced that this is the work of the devil. Competing with our hero comes an inquisitor, charged into uprooting Satan’s hidden helpers.
In many ways ‘The Name of the Rose’ plays out like a Sherlock Holmes mystery, with the fittingly-named William of Baskerville as our Sherlock Holmes and his assistant Adso as his Watson. The key difference here is that, unlike many Holmes stories, the mystery can be followed: nothing is kept from the audience, nothing is held back on purpose.
The mystery isn’t all that complex, frankly, but it’s veiled just enough that we can’t be entirely sure what is going on until close to the end. It’s also pieced together in such a way that, even after having seen it many times and knowing the whole story, it remains satisfying; watching William’s methodical approach to crime-solving is gripping stuff.
Sean Connery plays this Sherlock Holmes type quite well, with just the right amount of vanity, confidence and wisdom. Amazingly, he wasn’t either Annaud or Eco’s choice, but Annaud couldn’t find anyone perfect for the part. Turns out that his concern (that having been James Bond might taint the part) was unfounded.
Christian Slater was selected as Adso after a massive casting call, and he does exceptionally well as the naïve apprentice. You can see the awe in his eyes as he watches his master perform his duties (no doubt because Slater was playing with a legend). It’s hardly surprising that he would rocket to the top of Hollywood’s A-list for a few years.
The rest of the casting is extremely unusual, eschewing traditional Hollywood types for incredibly strong, unforgettable faces. Aside for notable character actors Michael Lonsdale and F. Murray Abraham, no slouches either of them, the rest are all then-unknown actors with extremely distinctive appearances; there was no Heath Ledger in this Order.
The most outstanding performance comes courtesy of Ron Perlman, who played Salvatore, a dim-witted hunchback who speaks in gibberish. Also picked for his unusual appearance, he had made his mark in Annaud’s previous film, ‘Quest for Fire’, being nominated for a Genie award for his performance. Not bad for a first-timer.
In ‘The Name of the Rose’, he manages to humanize Salvatore, turning what could have been a monster into a near-likeable character – by mixing humour, simplicity and vulnerability together in a way that evokes pathos, not contempt. It’s an unforgettable performance in the midst of a dozen incredibly strong turns by the cast.
There was another performance that was unforgettable to me, however: that of Valentina Vargas as the girl. A wild peasant, and the only female character of the whole picture, she and Adso are quickly taken with each other. She proceeds to seduce him, in a primal scene that branded my brain for years; it felt real, almost spontaneous.
This is no wonder, as Annaud refused to let Slater in on exactly what Vargas was going to do. For authenticity’s sake, he had her plan her part and left Slater in the dark. You can see wonderment on Slater’s face as the scene unfolds. Sincerely, for this 16-year-old teen, there was nothing more realistic than this one moment, as short as it is.
Annaud’s attention to detail extended to all parts of the production, not just to the performances. He actually spent years scouting locations to find the perfect setting for the film. He found it in Italy, and had the abbey its ramparts built from scratch! Even the clothing was tailor-made with the right materials, because Annaud believed the difference could be felt, if not seen.
He also shot the film in low, if not natural, lighting, giving the allure of actually being in the middle of nowhere, with only torches for light. The only problem is that the picture is extremely dark so it’s hard to see all the detail. This was likely not an issue in a movie theatre, but it is when compressed onto a DVD and played on a medium-sized screen.
Still, this darkness is entirely appropriate, given the setting. Not only were they stuck in an abbey, surrounded by poverty and obscurity, but it was in the 14th century, when there were few options available to them. To add to the misery, it looked veritably cold – the actors’ breaths kept floating out in wisps. I’m sure Annaud refused to heat that set.
Some would likely complain that ‘The Name of the Rose’ is slow for a modern murder mystery/thriller, but I think that it’s perfectly-paced, allowing audiences to absorb everything. Anyway, it’s appropriate given the context – in a monastery, events would likely transpire at a snail’s pace. In my estimation, Annaud was right in his approach.
Of course, I’m a huge fan of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s films (at least the ones I’ve seen: ‘Quest for Fire’, an all-time favourite, ‘The Name of the Rose’, ‘The Bear’ and ‘The Lover‘). This is a filmmaker with seemingly no pretensions, who is merely passionate about his subjects and takes the time to explore them fully, as thoroughly as possible.
Unfortunately, ‘The Name of the Rose’ was not a hit in North America at the time of its release, where it played in less than 200 cinemas. But international audiences adored it: it grossed a total of almost 80 million dollars on a 19 million dollar budget. By any terms, that’s a massive hit. But it would take home video for North Americans to catch up.
Now, however, ‘The Name of the Rose’ consistently remains out of the shadows. With its tightly-woven plot, intense performances, realistic aesthetic quality, it is one of the most noteworthy films of the eighties, and certainly one of the more memorable entries in Sean Connery’s long and incredible career. It is a small masterpiece.
Date of viewing: March 1, 2014