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Reflections on "The Name of the Rose"

 

A video presentation of this material is available here.

 

 

Welcome to my page of thoughts and reflections on themes and characters in Jean-Jacques Annaud's film version of Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose".

 

 

On the face of it a medieval whodunit (as Brother William of Baskerville investigates the deaths in mysterious circumstances of a number of monks), Annaud's film of Eco's book is an intriguing treatment of several themes including reason versus faith, the maintenance of ecclesiastical tradition and dogma, and of course what life itself was like in medieval times.

 

 

 

 

 

Medieval life

 

More than in any other film I can think of, the sets, costumes and lighting in "The Name of the Rose" have contributed to the creation of a particular atmosphere - not just in terms of tension, revulsion or mystery, but in terms of recreating the "feel" of the time. You actually feel the discomfort and hardship of daily life. You become aware of what life was like, and this is not just as the background to a detective story - this is a vital and pervading element, one which seems to play as much a part in the proceedings as the development of the storyline and characters.

 

Monastic life

 

Naturally we focus on a look at life in a medieval monastery. We are given a sort of profile of the monks who inhabit this monastery. We see (and are rather taken aback by) those who are attracted to such a life. Although their individual stories are not provided, we see and hear enough to be able to impute their reasons for joining this order, and this is certainly not because they are necessarily devoted or devout. We meet bizarre characters who may be outcasts, or misfits who seek a place (somewhere) in society. This is certainly not some idealised view of monastic life. We see the problems they must face in terms of temptation, sexual repression, sexual orientation, faith and its numerous interpretations, relations with ordinary peasants (for whom "acts of charity" may consist of the release of bones and carcases to scrounging local inhabitants), and of course corruption (both moral and physical).

 

This reflects a class-ridden society where the under class effectively paid for the upper class as they hold power - politically and morally, governing by fear and superstition while playing on the ignorance of the masses.

 

 

Education

 

Venerable Jorge (the chief librarian) is protective of, and wishes to uphold the position of saints and the church in general by "preserving" (and concealing) books he considers challenging to the authority and power of the church. In this case we are particularly concerned with Aristotle's second book of poetics which looks at the use of comedy to arrive at an understanding of truth. Jorge keeps the volume hidden because the church's position depends on fear and reverence, and by its very nature comedy removes that reverence, allowing readers to see people differently and perhaps even as they really are.

 

The church, at that time, wielded immense power and influence - financial, moral and political, and books which encouraged irreverence toward that institution and its position might lead to an undermining and disintegration of that position. The spread of ideas had to be carefully controlled since ignorance is power, and so Jorge took it upon himself to impregnate the pages with poison, therefore limiting the spread of the ideas contained in the book, and disguising the crimes to appear part of the apocalyptic curse, thus striking further fear into the minds and hearts of those around him.

 

It is interesting to note, however, that the ideas and knowledge contained in the books are nonetheless respected and valued more highly than the lives of men.

 

Reason

 

William of Baskerville uses logic and reason rather than resort to superstition and accusations of witchcraft to explain events. Here we see the beginnings of the age of reason, with its emphasis on experiential knowledge and a turning away from traditional idealism. We are witnessing the beginning of science and precision as opposed to magic and wild leaps of logic based on fear and ignorance.

 

Naturally this approach will bring William into conflict with the Orthodox Church and more particularly the Inquisition (in which failure to agree with the authorised view is regarded as heresy).

 

However, Bernardo Gui (inquisitor) meets a grisly end as his pursuit of papal justice is perceived as contrary to "natural" justice and the peasants rebel against his decision to burn one of their number at the stake as a witch, thus reflecting a more general shying away from papal authority across Europe at the time.

 

 

It is essential to note that William does not reject his faith, but rather calls in to question the traditions, dogma and methods of the church in the shape of the Inquisition.

 

 

I thought the film was very well directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud in terms of the clarity with which he recounted a complex and difficult tale. Excellent use was made of sets etc. to produce an atmospheric and at times chilling mixture of murder mystery and an examination of various elements of conflict between faith and reason, and the very structure of society at that time.

 

There are one or two moments, however, when clarity gives way to jarring confusion as character movements don't "flow" from one scene to the next - particularly in the odd "action" scene. Lack of planning? Poor editing? It does seem churlish to draw attention to one or two weaknesses given the strength of direction and performance everywhere else, but that is what makes these few jarring moments all the more surprising.

 

Given the subject matter (hardly standard material for a cinema thriller!), it is both directed and written with remarkable clarity overall - we know who each character is, see his/her development and how they fit into the overall story - quite a feat given the complexity of the original tale.

 

All the roles are well played, but special mention should be made of Ron Perlman who manages to convey repulsion, sympathy and humour in the character of Salvatore.

 

 

It is, however, undoubtedly Connery's film as he gives an assured performance conveying his character's intelligence, control, and confidence, yet also making him human with weaknesses and regrets. All this, and delivered with a knowing humour too.

 

It is quite surprising that, given the film's dark and relatively obscure themes, it did so well in Europe, though it did markedly less well in the US where, I believe, it was marketed as some sort of crazy comedy by distributors who showed little faith in the American public's interest in this tale of reason over myth, dogma and religious fervour.

 

 

My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some interest. I would be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to discuss "The Name of the Rose", or these notes about it. I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk .

 

 

Stuart Fernie

 

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