If Judge Paul Corupe knew the answers to everything, he would be teaching macroeconomics in Topeka.
Our review of The Name of the Rose (Blu-ray), published August 15th, 2011, is also available.
"Let us exercise our brains and try to solve this tantalizing conundrum"—William of Baskerville (Sean Connery)
A Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco's bestselling novel of curious homicide in a foreboding 14th century abbey was not the easiest choice for a property to adapt on film. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud's intentionally gloomy, historically authentic vision of the book loses much in translation to the screen, but it's still worth your while as an engaging mystery. Long M.I.A. on DVD, A Name of the Rose finally has made its digital debut courtesy of Warner Brothers in an agreeable new special edition.
Facts of the Case
William of Baskerville (Sean Connery, Goldfinger) arrives at a Benedictine monastery to take part in a debate over Christ's standpoint on poverty, along with his young protégé Adso von Melk (Christian Slater, True Romance). The learned pair has only just settled into their sparse chambers when they find themselves embroiled in a deep mystery with shocking religious undertones. While investigating the recent death of a manuscript illuminator, several other monks turn up murdered in equally peculiar circumstances, each death recalling the Book of Revelations. The abbot and his followers hold the devil's hand responsible, and summon Spanish Inquisitor Bernardo Gui (F. Murray Abraham, Amadeus) to unearth the culprit with branding irons. While Gui tortures his way toward truth, William becomes convinced that the answer to the mystery lies in the abbey's library, which houses a well-guarded labyrinth of books.
It might be said that Eco's novel uses an incidental murder mystery to explore greater truths, while Arnaud's film laces a few incidental truths through the plot of a thrilling murder mystery. The growing tension between the Franciscans, the Benedictines, and several smaller religious sects are the real subjects of the Eco's landmark novel, which depicts European society on the cusp of religious and philosophical change, as seen through the eyes of Adso. Truly, the great pleasure of the book is in delving into Eco's asides on the historical background of the medieval church in passages vividly filled with sociological and theoretical detail.
Unfortunately, these elements are far more difficult to elucidate on film than they are on the printed page, and present a problem to any filmmaker seeking to commit the work to celluloid. Although the temptation to lecture his audience is certainly there, Arnaud thankfully does not offer prologues of scrolling text or resort to dreary scenes of dialogue in which a character stand-in for the viewer absorbs lengthy discourses of historical exposition (The Da Vinci Code—coming to theatres soon!). Instead, Arnaud pushes much of the book's historical significance to the background, and concentrates on the secondary mystery plot. It's a move that fans of the novel, including myself, have found controversial, but it's ultimately necessary as a tool to bring Eco's ideas to screen.
Pared down to a straightforward whodunit and accepted on that level, the film version of The Name of the Rose is largely successful. What really makes the film so notable is its realistic setting—a seemingly accurate 14th century backdrop that also helps to fill in some of the detail and sociological significance that simply couldn't be included. Mixing real abbey locations with a detailed monastery built especially for this project, Annaud almost rivals the text for immersing the audience in the medieval world, with authentic natural lighting and intricately detailed architecture. The film then relies on its intriguing mystery to draw the audience into its measured pace, and indeed, patient viewers are rewarded with a trail of clues and the definite machinations of a secret conspiracy, complete with hidden passages, concealed motives and secret allegiances. As a medieval thriller, The Name of the Rose is absolutely first rate, and should appeal to all mystery film buffs, whether they've read Eco's book or not.
Connery and Slater both do admirable jobs here as detectives in the mold of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, although Slater seems to play his character in an almost constant state of confusion. The lead performances are almost completely overshadowed by the supporting players, though—F. Murray Abraham's fiery portrayal of Bernardo Gui is the deliciously evil highlight of the film, and Hellboy's Ron Perlman is especially notable as Salvatore, the hunchbacked multi-linguist who indiscriminately mixes dialects in such a way that William remarks, "He speaks all languages—and none." The background of the film is also filled with monks made up with grotesque facial features that make them just as menacing as the stone gargoyles that inhabit every corner of the abbey.
Long out of print on VHS, Warner blesses The Name of the Rose with a good, but not great presentation. Natural lighting might be the most historically accurate route, but it tends to make for a murky picture. Keeping that in mind, the transfer exhibits a solid level of detail, marred only slightly by grain and a few minor source artifacts. As expected with such a dark film, colors don't fair very well, and shadow detail can often be difficult to discern. The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack isn't overpowering in its use of the surround channels, instead opting for subtle atmospheric effects. Still, the track delivers when it needs to, such as the monk's melodious chanting or the film's explosive climax. James Horner's mediocre score is also richly represented.
Jean-Jacques Annaud's director's commentary headlines the disc's generous selection of special features. Delving deeply into the film's production, Annaud provides anecdotes and behind-the-scenes details that will appeal strongly to fans of the film. You really get the feeling that Annaud is fond of his work, and that's a tribute to this truly enjoyable track. On the other hand, the 43-minute German documentary "The Abbey of Crime: Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose," is a distinct disappointment. Although Eco is interviewed, this puff piece deals in just slightly less information and objectivity than an average seven-minute Hollywood studio-produced featurette. Annaud also appears in "A Photo Video Journey with Jean-Jacques Annaud," in which the director looks through photographs and talks more about the making of the film. Also on board is the original theatrical trailer.
Best considered a companion to the book rather than a direct adaptation, Annaud's film succeeds on its own terms as a literate whodunit drenched in period detail and appropriately gothic touches. Annaud takes from Eco William's deductive logic and quest for more knowledge in the face of a church that only sought to preserve and reproduce available wisdom, and that is enough reference to the novel to satisfy a mainstream audience. Warner Brothers has done a respectable job with the DVD, definitely making it worth a purchase for fans of the film.
Although heretical to the Eco's novel, The Name of the Rose is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director Jean-Jacques Annaud
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