The following article was published in N-SPHERE December 2010 issue.


Name: Der Name der Rose (The Name of the Rose)
Year: 1986
Directed by: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Cast (partial): Sean Connery, Christian Slater, Michael Lonsdale, Ron Perlman, F. Murray Abraham
Based on: Il nome della rosa by Umberto Eco


What is a word? What is in a word? A sound? A meaning? A frail thread of life expunged towards the ether?

Der Name der Rose is a cruel, carnal movie. It is a gray and foggy succession of images, with almost each frame loaded with subtle meanings and obvious symbols. The story is fragile at most, but manages to draw the viewer into the depicted ages. Both a positive and a negative point of the film, its realism manages to provoke mental transgressions of the viewer into the XIVth century italian abbey, but it also causes minor slips in attention towards the sequential nature of the plot. Based on the classical scheme of exposition, conflict, climax and denouement, the story presented is a mystery of murder filled with mythological and christian symbols, with sorrow, regret, personal growth, obedience and love (towards humans, the divine, the perennial and the eternal).

The story starts with the arrival of a monk, William of Baskerville, and his young novice, Adso of Melk, at an abbey. Here a meeting must take place to discuss the earthly possessions of the church. This motivation is soon thrown into a background story, as the protagonist finds out a murder has occurred the night before and the abbot asks for his help to unveil the mystery of a young beautiful monk falling from a closed window. To avoid demonic possession rumors, William accepts the task and starts a captivating inquiry into this subject. However, the first hour of the film brings mere elements of setting the stage, so to speak, and presents the historical and symbolic context of the story, which will eventually help in unfolding the mysteries of the three deaths by placing the events into a meaningful background.

Right at the beginning, symbols start pouring in. The abbot kisses William on the mouth, establishing a peer–to–peer relation between them, while extending his hand to be kisses by the novice. Not much unlike the ancient greeks, who believed that love can only exist between being of equal status (and since they considered women to be inferior… you get the point). The homoerotic symbolism does not end here, as a monk who prefers the company of young beautiful boys punishes himself through self flagellation, or the novice Adso is being shown the beauty of female breasts while being petted on the head by an older monk, Ubertino de Casale. The latter is convinced that the devil has a hand in all of the events presented and proclaims: “the devil is hurling beautiful boys out of windows… there was something feminine, something diabolical about the young one who died… yeh, the eyes of a girl seeking intercourse with the devil”. The other facet of the homoerotic symbolism is submission, either from novice towards his master (although this one is particularly platonic), either from lower ranking monks towards higher–ups (although this is considered piety). The first hour of the movie dreads slowly, with dark imagery, slaying of pigs, the blood, the feeding of the poor as mere animals who are thrown donations like garbage, a fat albino screaming like a girl, cold wind sounds, realistic surroundings. The young monk is amazed by it with youthful curiosity like a kitten observing a working chainsaw from behind a thin and brittle layer of glass.

The stage is set and the movie digs deep into history and extracts the backbone of that moment in time. Enforcing mentality, keeping quiet, banning of laughter, the idea that knowledge is sorrow are punctually and briefly shown in order to present deeper meanings. Rational and deductive reasoning elements are brought in as a means of shedding light upon the truth. The question that William tries to answer in order to find the murderer is “where are the books?”. Books are viewed here as a means to knowledge, while discovery of knowledge arises through scientific measures (the chemical reaction between lemon juice and heat), thus taking the plot into astrological symbols, codes and secrets (sadly, only briefly). On an opposite side, facing the beauty of knowledge, there is the human world, in which love has a place, and, as an old man, Adso argues that life would be tranquil without it, but very very dull. At the basis of human relationships can reside either love (be it platonic, or be it in its negative form, hatred) or lust. In the XIVth century, sex was a trading item. Unfortunately, that sounds a bit too familiar even these days. The young kitten Adso discovers that sex is sold, either for food, or for looks. William urges him not to confuse love with lust, and quoting Thomas Aquinas (“to praise love above all else”), it is pointed out that the only love allowed is the love for god. Thus, it is brought forward another element of the ages, the view on women. Scriptures told that the woman is evil and “more bitter than death”, being regarded as sorts of succubus–creatures that take possession of the immortal and (sarcasm on) pure (sarcasm off) souls of men.

By the beginning of the second hour of the film, there is an increase in intrigue as a third body appears and the story starts to really unfold. The question about hidden knowledge arises, in the form of hidden books. Be it hidden by man or other powers, it is suggested that information (and hence the meaning it carries, thus turning it into knowledge) is not to be restricted to anyone. Also, returning to a previous idea, it is shown that sex is always sold, even between men, this time the price being knowledge. This event creates a dissociation of genders, as at the time of the story, the male was believed to be entitled to higher mental functions, as the female was merely entitled to feed herself, receiving a statute not far from that of a domestic beast. Soon the viewer finds out that the reason for the deaths is a book, thus making knowledge a precious item. As the protagonists are closer to the truth, their efforts are being stomped on by the arrival of the inquisition, an instrument of hiding the truth and spreading mass obedience. The role of the master rises from singular points to the desire of controlling entire populations in the name of divinity and faith and the meaning of heresy becomes stretched and loses its original value. Following the events and using his deductive capacities, William searches for a hidden pool of knowledge. The discovery of the library is filled with warm light and genuine happiness for the knowledge driven monk. The multitude of books is rewarded by an overwhelmed shout, with an almost–majestic music in the background. Some philosophical matters are addressed, as the notion of a different class of wisdom is used as argument for explaining why the books are denied their function of being read. For this purpose, the library is a labyrinth, in which the young monk is lost for a brief moment, time in which he calls for his master, running around in panic; follows a scene of search, of desperation, of separation, bringing forth the strong connection between a master and his novice. One cannot exist without the other, as knowledge cannot exist without eyes to read it, mouths to speak it, ears to hear it or books to depict it.

Deeper into the historical background, an inquisition trial takes place. Mere innocent animals are regarded as tools of devil worship, as deduction is bent to suit the laws of inquisition. They don’t call them the Dark Ages for nothing. Numb minds, controlled by those with powers of manipulation, stupidity at its peak, killing and torture in the name of divinity, sacrificing lives for the sake of punishment and as a means to control the masses: it does resemble some other social happenings among the ages, doesn’t it? But none as cruel as this one. As the story picks up the pace, shifting focus from historical symbolism towards the plot, the inquisition tribunal becomes a mere tool for intensifying the climax. The trial is a mockery, as it convicts a man for stealing from the church, disregarding any divine meaning of any faith and pushing aside the basic core of christianity. During the trial, the only woman in the movie is regarded a witch, emphasizing on the view of the ages upon the female, and the convicted man would prefer to be guilty than to face the torture that the inquisition was famous for (’nuff said).

The last twenty minutes of the movie present the series of events that conclude the story. Their actual description will be omitted for reasons of preserving surprise for those who did not watch it yet. The story points out the frailty of written knowledge, the eternity of books, the limitations of the human mind. The ending of the film is sublime in imagery and meaning, sublime in shades of gray and silence and emotion.

Laughter was the tool of devil, laughter was the means for chaos. In the third millennium, laughter is healthy, laughter is sought and cherished, chaos is at the core of the natural state of things. The point is… life and knowledge are tightly connected. The rose would still be a rose, by any other name (as someone said centuries before), but could the eye decipher it as so? Could the ear identify its beauty, and essence, and being, without a word to describe it? “… and yet, I never learned her name…”

Quotes | Der Name der Rose

Movie still: Der Name der Rose. 1986.

by Vel Thora

Full article here.