A Haunting Rose

At the Movies

The Name of the Rose

Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud

At Harvard Square Theatre

REMEMBER PIA ZADORA in the film version of Harold Robbins' The Lonely Lady? A good beach book turned into a vehicle for this most untalented star to expose her "talent." Now Robbins does not pen great literature--many people would say that Robbins is not a writer, but a man in search of a movie deal--but whatever the book's merits, they were completely lost in its celluloid rendering.

If Harold Robbins' mass-market literature suffers at the hand of Hollywood, what happens to a book about a 14th century Franciscan abbey written by an obscure Italian academic?

Umberto Eco's novel, The Name of the Rose, would hardly seem the stuff that a bestseller--or a box-office smash--is made of. Despite a hypnotic murder mystery and a steamy deflowering, down deep it's about a bunch of medieval monks. But this unlikely tale evolves into a fast-paced, captivating piece of cinema.

The producers have minimized the comparisons to the novel by calling the screenplay a "palimpsest," a Greek word for a manuscript that has been partially erased and written upon several times. While the book was a lengthy work rife with literary references, every moment full of life's rich pageant, the film tends to focus on the murder mystery, the Spanish Inquisition and the relationship between the brilliant investigating monk, William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) and his young apprentice, Adso of Melk (Christian Slater).

The film is more than a bit bleak. As they enter the medieval abbey, William and Adso are first approached by an aged, Peter Lorre-type monk (William Hickey), who looks at Adso with his half-blind, lustful eyes and tells him that there is something "diabolical, even feminine" about the monastery. Even the gargoyles are creepy, with skull images where stalagmites once were.

"Do you think this place has been abandoned by God?" Adso asks William, and he seems to be on to something. All the monks are old and decrepit, shrinking and shrivelling. By comparison, Sean Connery looks a little too hale and handsome, and William comes off as James Bond in a habit.

In fact, Connery is on terra cognita since William of Baskerville has been called in to investigate the mysterious circumstances of the death of a fair, young monk. As other monks are found dead in boiling cauldrons and bath tubs, the Spanish Inquisition bandwagon arrives to look into the matter.

AMID SUB-PLOT questions of heresy and devil worship, the relationship between William and Adso develops. Entrusted to William and the Church by his father, Adso is none too happy to to be in this haunted abbey. The change in Adso from the reluctant to the committed comes with his admiration for William.

This relationship could be the most vital, sacred-to-secular crossover in The Name of the Rose. But, while both Connery and Slater are more than competent, Connery's William comes off as too wise, too crime-smart, too much the man who has the answers before you ask the questions. Too supernatural.

Adso, still the adolescent in flux and in heat, is a bit more complex, and Slater has much more to work with. A mystically erotic scene of Adso discovering the carnal truth with a young peasant girl (Valentina Vargas) might be the best reason to see this movie.

Otherwise, there is a very talented cast of character actors, including Academy Award-winner, F. Murray Abraham, as Bernardo Gui, a Spanish Inquisitor and William's nemesis. And while the cavernous abbey has none of the ornate, Florentine architecture we associate with religious structures, it's the perfect canvas for the Gothic faces who dwell there--monks with hunchbacks, bloated tumors, anemic skin and smudged features. No detail was spared on casting the extras.

Stealing the show is Tonino Delli Colli's cinematography, which is hazy and remote throughout but becomes fast-paced and astute as the more sanguinary scenes call for it. Even fans of its literary parent will find Hollywood's Rose rendition to be a vision of its own.