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What's in a name?
on November 26, 2005
This film is a fascinating combination of modern and medieval elements. The setting is an abbey, whose name according to the narrator, 'it seems pious and prudent to omit'. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Umberto Eco, a semiologist and intellectual I had the pleasure of meeting twice - once at my university in America, and then again a few years later in London. Semiotics is a study of signs - in many ways, my theological training parallels, and it is this kind of parallel that is at the heart of the novel.
There is a debate about to be had at the high, inaccessible abbey. This debate, according to the leading Franciscan participant, is one that can determine the theology of the church for generations to come. So pivotal was this issue that papal envoys and monastics from around Christendom have gathered to determine the answer to the question - did Christ, or did he not, own the clothes he wore.
This is a play on the kind of theological musings that, then and now, distract the church from its proper functions of being a witness to the world. One could imagine the question of how many angels dancing on the head of a pin being used by Eco, except that that would be far too obvious a silliness.
However 'pivotal' this conference may be to the future of Christendom, it is in fact incidental to the storyline of the film. The real story revolves around the happenings at the hosting abbey, a Benedictine community whose vocation involves the preservation and transcription of a major library (libraries being full of books, written in language, full of signs and symbols). However, two things become immediately apparent - there don't seem to be any books around, and the transcriptionists are dying one by one.
Enter William of Baskerville (the name an obvious homage, a sign of respect, to Sherlock Holmes). William is a Franciscan journeying to the abbey with his novice, Adso, to take part in the upcoming conference. The Abbot enlists William's assistance in discovering how the monks are dying, which he does with Holmesian technique and precision. Analysing data such as footprints, fall-patterns from hillsides, and other such observational information, he comes to a few conclusions, but these distress the head librarian, who has seen it as his task to protect the world from blashphemous books (ironically, while maintaining their existence within the confines of the great library's labyrinth).
While William and Adso do their Holmes and Watson in a scientific manner, one of the other Franciscan visitors decides to apply a different interpretation to the happenings, preferring to see in the murderous environment of the abbey the signs of the apocalypse, particularly worrisome given the nature of the pivotal conference soon to take place.
Unfortunately for William, just as he is getting close to the truth, the Inquisition is called (no one expects the Spanish Inquistition), and in the figure of Bernardo Gui, the Inquisition descends upon the abbey with full force and terror. Gui accepts neither William's rational explanations nor Ubertino's end-times interpretations, preferring a more common staple of Inquisition deciphering - it must be the work of the devil. Finding a black cat and a woman smuggled into the abbey only help confirm this, particularly in an environment that sees little value in either.
Ultimately, however, the interpretation is wrong. William and Adso finally discover a way into the library, and make the further discovery that the key text the librarian is trying to hide is one by Aristotle, his work on Comedy, for he fears that in the Scholastic environment of the church, in which Aristotle is seen as the rational side of God's wisdom, that a book by Aristotle that permits laughter would be the undoing to the world.
In the end, the library burns with few books saved, the conference ends without a resolution, the Inquisition gets a judgement leveled against itself in a very 'just-desserts' fashion, and William and Adso depart.
But what of the name of the rose? We never learn the name of the rose; indeed, the rose is yet one more sign, a symbol for the love of Adso's life, the woman accused of being a witch. As the final credits fall, we learn that in the midst of all the tumult, Adso never learned her name.
The performances here are solid and gripping. Sean Connery plays William of Baskerville with aplomb. A young Christian Slater is a good novice, with still enough innocence to his performance to be believable. The abbot is played by Michael Lonsdale (not too many years off of playing a James Bond villain). Special mention goes to Helmut Qualtinger, who played the librarian Brother Remigio, who died just hours after filming his last scene, and was frequently in pain from the illness he was suffering during filming. William Hickey plays Franciscan Ubertino with an air of strangeness and mystery. Finally, F. Murray Abraham plays the dreaded Bernardo Gui, in every way as psychologically beguiling as in his starring role in 'Amadeus', but unfortunately with a much smaller role in this film.
Despite not making an Oscar bid, this film won numerous awards throughout Europe, including the BAFTA best actor award for Connery. It also was nominated for the Edgar Allen Poe award for mystery film.
The sets are dramatic, the costumes are perfect (particularly the contrast between the simplicity of the Franciscans, the durability of the Benedictines, the opulence of the papal envoys, the flair of the Inquisitors, and the rags of the peasants - all signs of a stratified society). The film is done in a cinematographic style that gives an overall feel of isolation; the abbey is isolated from the world, and the people are detached from each other for the most part.
This is a remarkable film in many ways, and one that I frequently turn to again to see what new signs I missed the last time through.