Warner Bros. // 1986 // 132 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 15th, 2011
They believed in God...but traded with the devil.
"You worship the god of rationality."
Nonconformist monk William of Baskerville (Sean Connery, From Russia With Love) arrives at a 14th Century Italian monastery during a time of darkness and unease. A man was recently killed in an inexplicable manner, leading some to believe that demons are at work in the monastery. As this incident is followed by additional, similar deaths, fears begin to run rampant among the monks. However, William is a rationalist and refuses to believe that some sort of demonic hocus pocus is responsible. He believes someone is murdering the victims, but figuring out who proves to be a complicated process. William must piece together the clues, but he also has to fight the small-minded resistance of authority figures who believe supernatural causes are at work.
There's so much to like about The Name of the Rose: it boasts a tender and compelling lead performance from Sean Connery, an exceptional supporting cast that includes the likes of Michael Lonsdale (Moonraker), Ron Perlman (Hellboy), a very young Christian Slater (True Romance), F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus), and William Hickey (Prizzi's Honor), a thoughtful screenplay that has more on its mind than simply "whodunnit?" and darkly immersive atmosphere courtesy of director Jean-Jacques Annaud. Despite these many virtues, The Name of the Rose never quite congeals into a satisfying whole.
The Umberto Eco novel upon which the film is based is indeed a murder mystery, but was more concerned with the philosophy and history of the era. The cinematic version, as you might expect, places the murder mystery element at the fore and suffers as a result. Though the novel did indeed win a great deal of acclaim, when you strip away the fascinating emphasis on historical context, in-depth exploration of church tensions, and Eco's skillful writing, you're left with nothing more than a middling murder mystery of the sort one might find in one of Basil Rathbone's lesser Sherlock Holmes outings ("Elementary, my dear Adso," Connery says to his young apprentice at one point).
It's revealing that the film's most absorbing scenes are those that have little to do with the central mystery. The more intriguing story is the philosophical conflict between progressive monks like William of Baskerville and the more conservative members of the church. Of course, the viewpoints of all of these individuals seem extremely conservative to the modern viewer, but William's fondness for such "suspect" virtues as laughter, logic and compassion foreshadow a movement of positive change. The film deserves merit for never turning William into an unconvincingly modern man, as he is still saddled by certain prejudices of the era. At one point he states that he does indeed believe that women are sinful creatures meant to be avoided, but admits, "If God created them, I believe they must have...some virtue."
Still, this material mostly percolates in the background as Connery and a perplexed Christian Slater wander through a series of secret passages, dark tunnels, and dusty libraries in search of clues (early shades of Dan Brown can certainly be felt). Annaud fails to invest this material with much tension, which gives viewers an experience that becomes tedious on occasion. Connery is strong in his role, but his understated work needs something more engaging to interact with. Things promise to perk up a great deal with the arrival of the savage inquisitor played by Abraham, but the character is too cartoonish to really be threatening (his blatant ignorance of obvious truths brings him perilously close to Monty Python territory). While I realize that people knowingly did horrible things in the name of God (and still do, for that matter), it's a little hard to believe that Abraham's character could so easily swindle a large group of monks who can plainly see the truth for themselves.
The Name of the Rose arrives on Blu-ray sporting a decent 1080p/1.77:1 transfer. While one might dismiss the transfer as mediocre at a glance, it's important to note that The Name of the Rose is a pretty rough-looking film to begin with. Some scenes are so dark that much of what's onscreen is incomprehensible (a common complaint when the film was released in theatres, so it's a problem built into the source material), and the movie generally has a drab, desaturated look. Bearing all that in mind, the level of detail is decent and the film's natural grain structure has been left intact. Audio is solid as well, though it's disappointing to hear James Horner turn in one of his more underwhelming scores of the era (a bland, low-key fusion of his synth-heavy work on Gorky Park and Red Heat) for a film that requires a much more striking effort. Dialogue is a wee bit muddled at times, but not enough to spend much time complaining about. The sound design is hit-and-miss, but I was generally satisfied with the mix given the film's age. Supplements include two commentaries with Annaud (one in English, and one in French), a 43-minute German television special highlighting the film's production, a 16-minute "Photo Video Journey" hosted by Annaud and a trailer.
Ironically, The Name of the Rose is a thinking man's mystery that grows problematic when you really think about it. It has plenty of pleasures to offer, but doesn't quite reach its potential in the end. The Blu-ray release is decent enough.
Guilty of failing to be everything it ought to be.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 132 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Rated R