Sunday, February 26, 2017

Berkeley Blazer Overlooks: The Name of the Rose

Greetings, dear readers. I’ve poured myself a glass of cognac and put on some early hits from that righteous babe Hildegard von Bingen so I could be in proper form and tell you about Jean Jacques Annaud’s 1985 film The Name of the Rose. This German movie -filmed in English, helmed by a Frenchmen, based on an Italian novel, starring the world’s most famous Scotsman and a then-unknown-but-not-for-long young American named Christian Slater- is an overlooked thriller from the director of Quest for Fire and Seven Years in Tibet.

The novel this film is based on is a perennial favorite of mine. It has a reputation of being an international bestseller that nobody finished due to its length, complexity, and historical faithfulness. In five-hundred plus pages, author Umberto Eco (1932-2016) combined rigorous historical detail, cultural in-jokes, and postmodern narrative technique into a medieval murder mystery. Eco’s novel debuted in the 80’s when he was already a well-known scholar and semiotician. At its core, The Name of the Rose is a firsthand account, by a monk named Adso of Melk, of his journey to a dark Italian abbey with his learned and wise master, William of Baskerville. Whole books have been written about “Ill Nome della Rosa” and the novel is too big to try covering here, so I won't talk about it too much, except when relevant to the film. Annaud takes basic plot at the center of the story and turns Eco’s masterpiece into an engaging and darkly atmospheric medieval whodunit that targets some of Eco’s more universal themes and wisely avoids ideas less appropriate to the cinematic medium. Annaud communicates this to readers by opening the title credits with the phrase “A Palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s Novel”.

“....Salvatore seemed to me...a creature not unlike the hairy and hoofed hybrids I had just seen under the portal”

The film opens with our two heroes William (Connery) and Adso (Slater) riding their beasts of burden across a foreboding landscape. The depiction of these dark and godly mountains give us a sense of an infinitely expansive yet barren sublimity. William of Baskerville is of course our Franciscan Sherlock Holmes and Adso his Benedictine Watson, chronicling William’s fantastical, morbid adventure with an older Adso narrating through voice-over. William and Adso are traveling to this unnamed monastery with the purpose of engaging in a debate with other church representatives about the opulence of the church and whether this conflicts with the poverty of Christ. Upon arrival we are introduced to Brother William’s intellectual acumen as he quickly absorbs the details around him. He eventually deduces that murder is afoot and in true Holmesian fashion, he is more guided by intellectual curiosity than the pressing need for everyone else to solve the mystery before the debates begin. William’s search uncovers and is obstructed by the many lies and subterfuges that seem as common as morning prayer. This cast of strange, highly circumspect and mendacious monks are trying to throw him off the trail because of their guilt, (perhaps not the guilt William is particularly interested in).

Annaud and crew really did an admirable job in casting and set design. The sense of historical authenticity conveyed by both exterior and interior shots, coupled with the realization of the almost Boschian-visaged monks Eco describes in the novel are worth the price of admission (in this case $9.99 at Barnes and Nobles). Grotesque stone art of the Christian tradition adorn the vaulted ceilings and obscure nooks of the main church building, and at one point are implicitly compared to one of the abbey’s inhabitants. A scene taken right out of the novel has young Adso alone, entranced by the fantastic visions of hell, and is slowly driven to terror just before he encounters the maligned and deformed face of Salvatore. In addition to appearing as monstrous, Salvatore’s talk is comprised of disjointed phrases from different languages expressed in same sentence. Salvatore is an important character in the film and played by none other than Ron Perlman (Hellboy) with hideous charm, vulgarity, and warmth. Other notables include the portly former heretic Remiggio; the crusty, cataracted, and draconian Jorge of Burgos (yes, he is a blind librarian!); and of course the less visually repulsive but nonetheless most repellent of the lot, William’s nemesis and actual historical figure Bernardo of Gui played by F. Murray Abraham (cf. Milos Forman’s Amadeus). Like the reliefs Adso sees in the chapel, these fascinating faces are encountered in the darkness and are an integral part of a film whose main achievement is its malevolent atmosphere expressed in shadow and fire. Indeed, a contemporary review by Ebert complains the film is “photographed in such murky gloom that sometimes it is hard to be sure exactly what is happening”. The strong negative space/light contrast which were a burden for Ebert are rather pleasing in my eye, as give the film a Carrivagian quality. This isn’t so much an issue on the bluray, though the visual palette of the film is best enjoyed in the dark. While the composition of the film not on the level of a Barry Lyndon, one gets the sense Annaud was trying to achieve an expression of the lighting of the period. This is also a story of fire on both a symbolic and literal level, fire gives warmth and comfort, and more importantly aides the creation of knowledge (monks writing in the scriptorium), the absorption of knowledge (William and Adso read and explore by torchlight), and the destruction of knowledge i.e. fire as both enlightenment and the destruction of enlightenment.

“Adso, do you realize we’re in one of the greatest libraries in all of Christendom?!”

William is a lover of knowledge and wisdom, and in the fourteenth century that means he is a bibliophile, and his bibliophilia cannot be contained. Fortunately the mystery is somehow tied to the library, and William and Adso are led by fate and desire to clandestinely infiltrate the restricted library tower, or aedificium. The aedificium is a massive geometric tower full of books and scrolls, in fact a maze holding heaps of intellectual treasures. Translations of Greek classics from Arabic, bible codices gilded in gold, gems, medical texts, all liberally illustrated with detailed illuminations. This venture into the library tower is one of the most celebrated passages from the book and is one of the film’s greatest triumphs. Annaud’s production designer to Eco’s designs from the book and created an amazing set through and expensive and difficult process that is described in this amazing article. Beyond showcasing some marvelous set design, this scene allows us to experience the euphoria of entering a great library at a time when when knowledge didn’t saturate the world, when systematized information was rare, expensive, and forbidden. One of the main questions posed by The Name asks what kind of behaviors can emerge under the influence of different types of knowledge. Early on in the story William is pitted against the above-mentioned blind librarian Jorge when they first meet in the scriptorium. They debate the virtues of laughter by citing scripture and commentary as intellectuals tended to do at this time (appeal to authority was not yet a logical fallacy, apparently!). Jorge finds laughter to be a corrupting influence, afguing that laughter undermines the somber holiness of the gospels. William argues that laughter is in fact a virtue that comforts and illuminates, citing examples where holy men used laughter against the enemies of Christendom. Much of the film has William seeking after raw truth where suspicion of learned men and their ideas is the cultural rule of thumb, and even William’s allies find his intellect dangerous, even sinful. As William tries to find naturalistic explanations for the murders in the abbey, most of the monks choose to read in them signs of the apocalypse. The investigation is compounded by the fact that many of the men under investigation are former heretics who in many cases not only followed alternate versions of christianity, but conducted direct attacks on church and secular authorities in a de facto class war, and would be punished in horrible ways if anyone of authority discovered their secrets. As the bodies begin to pile up, their hysteria increases. The question of heresy is also part of “the problem of knowledge” theme so integral to the film. William, remember, is at the abbey to discuss the poverty of Christ, and he and his fellow Franciscans believe that the church has become excessively opulent. Anyone who questions official doctrine is in danger of being labeled a heretic. We as viewers encounter so much hostility to William’s curiosity, even the non-bibliophiles are compelled to share in William’s joy when he finally gains access to the library. It’s a remarkable feat for the film to bring those of us in the post-information age to experience the intellectual hunger pangs someone like William might have had for free access to information.

Adso: Do you think that this is a place abandoned by God?

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

   Indeed, god feels conspicuously absent from this world. Despite the fact that all the characters talk of piety, revelation, apocalypse, and humbleness before the lord, there is nothing that strikes one as evidence of a transcendental presence in this story (except perhaps Adso’s special experience, which I will decline to spoil here). Everything that happens in the story is grounded in human behavior, and we really do get the sense that whoever or whatever god might be, he’s never been to this abbey. This narrative tells the far more interesting story of why humans believe what they believe, what stories they tell, and how both these factors affect their behavior. The historical distance of the middle ages make it easier for us to observe in William’s quest how human narratives both broaden and circumscribe our worldview, a lesson that both William and his brother come to realize in different ways. While the comparison isn’t immediately obvious, this thematic context is comparable first season of True Detective. The two works also share a similar mystery structure, where eureka moments are presented as symptoms of predispositions; both protagonists are prone to miscalculations and precisely because of their intellectual gifts. One imagines that Rustin Cohle and Brother WIlliam would find themselves in mutually good company, even in matters of faith. William is a monk and Cohle a skeptical atheist, but one could imagine them in similar positions if their respective historical periods were reversed. Like Cohle, William looks at the the behavior of his fellow humans with cynicism. He sees the way the church takes advantage of the peasants that work their land and pay a tithe, and the political expedience, love of wealth, and power struggles that motivate the executives of the church and the officers of the inquisition. I must applaud Connery, who takes this skepticism and brilliantly adds a tolerant bemusement in the follies of his fellow man. While Connery’s William does occasionally get righteously angry at the mendacity, hypocrisy, and cruelty before him, more often he remarks on their actions with a silent inner laughter. Unlike Cohle, whose pessimism darkens even further the strange events of that story, William’s character is a candle surrounded by a world shrouded in physical and intellectual darkness.

“Monsters exist because they are part of the divine plan, and in the horrible features of those same monsters the power of the creator is revealed.” 

   The Name is not a horror film, but there are many moments where it feels like one. Images like that of a murdered monk drowned in a cauldron of hot pig's blood or the impression of stone gargoyles coming to life lend an air of supernatural terror to their proceedings, though William is always there to dispel the illusion. The framing and film quality of the movie in some ways recall seventies era Italian genre that our dear Overlook fans will probably appreciate. The only caveat I would put forth to you is that if you plan on reading the book at all, I would do that first. Allow yourself the luxury of creating the world of the abbey in your own head and drink deep of the meditations on philosophy and history Eco guides you though. This experience will also enrich your subsequent experience of the film, as Annaud follows the basic narrative pretty closely. There will be much more meaning attached to certain scenes that will act as a touchstone to the moments that from the book that are not articulated in the film but alluded to.

   In short, The Name of the Rose is an entertaining thriller that has some real historical weight to it as well as a titillating visual style. It feels both familiar and unique, and somehow the inclusion of Connery and Slater amplify its weirdness rather than dampen it. It perhaps doesn’t live up to the ambitions heights of its novelistic namesake but is nonetheless an amicable enough companion to it, as it stands quite well on its own as a macabre mystery. It has the benefit of not being particularly well-known even among fans of the book so for many will feel like a discovery. I invite our dear reader to share their Rose thoughts and experiences in the comment selection below, and to beware of filthy reading habits that could bury you prematurely

-Berkeley Blazer


Umberto Eco
By Bogaerts, Rob / An


William and Adso in the library

David with the Head of Goliath

Rustin Cohle, Brother William

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