The most striking thing about Jean-Jacques Annaud’s adaptation of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is how determinedly ugly it is. With the bulk of the cast seemingly picked for their ability to spontaneously trigger the human gag reflex, and a dank, mud-smeared, undoubtedly foul-smelling architectural monstrosity for a setting, TNOTR is a vision of 14th century squalor which suggests a Europe that keeps going on Crusade just so it won’t have to look at itself.
It’s also a very dark film, leaving its grotesques to skitter like devious, misshapen rats from shadow to inky shadow. Here is a world where nothing good can grow, and would be strangled in its cradle if it tried.
Enter Br. William of Baskerville –a clever Franciscan monk of some infamy– and his novice, Adso of Melk. Portrayed by a middle-aged Sean Connery and a very young Christian Slater, they serve as the primary source of illumination for a two hour prowl through the basements and battlements of an Italian abbey, a cold stone edifice that encompasses within its walls all the depths and heights of human endeavor.
Much is made in that run-time of murder and sex and other crimes against both good and God. Men die for mysterious reasons in various (and sometimes unintentionally amusing) ways. Virgins are deflowered and Satanic rites conducted. The plot is serpentine and unnecessarily opaque at times, occasionally losing itself amid its own devices. For the first hour, it feels like a polemic on sexual repression by the Catholic church, filled as it is with flagellating, fellating priests and a lone female peasant who is whored, raped, beaten, and ultimately sentenced to death without ever uttering a word. Annuad pounds that drum thoroughly and with great enthusiasm.
But the movie’s rhythmic heart is elsewhere, deep inside the abbey and a labyrinth of stairways and landings. That’s where Br. William and Adso at last uncover the church’s secret library, a seemingly endless collection of dusty, “spiritually dangerous” books that William declares is “one of the greatest in all Christendom!”
Connery’s whoop of delight upon discovering this trove of ancient, half-remembered texts is an odd treat, coming as it does from the actor who virtually invented aloof, amused cool. He’s giddy as he trails his fingertips over each heavy, leather-bound cover, and there’s an ecstatic awe in his voice as his character flips randomly through the pages of books he never thought he’d see. In essence, the original Mr. Bond takes this opportunity to completely… geek out.
The character of William was clearly inspired by (among others) Sherlock Holmes, and there are definite Holmesian touches in the way the disgraced-yet-respected priest conducts himself. He’s a keen observer of the seemingly trivial, an insightful judge of character, and a detector of symbols and patterns. But more than all that, Br. William is a man who passionately loves learning, and yet is bound to a culture that reveres nothing beyond the “sublime recapitulation” of extant knowledge.
In that sense, he’s something other than a detective. While he goes through the motions of unwinding a mystery, he doesn’t do so for a purpose so nebulous as justice, nor even truth. Nor for that ascribed to him by a fellow Franciscan:
No matter what the consequences, to him or anyone else, William of Baskerville must always prove himself right.
No, he does it because he wants to know. To see the unseen. And then see more. In searching for a lost volume of Aristotle, he games systems both mechanical and interpersonal, breaks rules that need breaking, and pursues with single-minded zeal the dissemination of information witheld from the world by self-appointed gatekeepers who seek advantage in ignorance.
When you look closely enough, William of Baskerville is really just an explorer of information denied. An insatiable intellect with a need to share and teach. A Renaissance man centuries before The Renaissance.
A 14th century hacker.