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The Name of the Rose

October 12, 2015

TNOTRThe book is much better. The film misses the nuances.

The story of the same name, written by the Italian academic and semiotician Umberto Eco, operates at one level as an example of the “whodunnit” genre. Yet it also has been perceived as an historical novel as well as a contemporary social commentary. These different readings are maintained to some degree in the film but it works most overtly as a whodunnit. This is clear from the outset when we discover a Franciscan monk, Bro. William of Baskerville (Sean Connery), arriving at an unnamed monastery with his assistant Adso of Melk (Christian Slater) for a major ecclesiastical debate about whether Jesus and his disciples owned their clothes. However, the Abbot (Michael Lonsdale) asks Bro. William to investigate the mysterious death of one of the monks.

Bro. William quickly concludes that this was an act of suicide but further deaths follow and the conference on poverty is overtaken by an inquisition into heresy led by the Jesuit Bernard Gui (F. Murray Abraham). Increasingly, Bro. William’s investigation is focused on the library but, to start with, it is difficult to tell whether this is because of his character’s obsession with books or because it holds the key to the murders. It emerges that the monastery has what is probably the sole surviving copy of the second book of Aristotle’s poetics — a book about humor. The person responsible for the deaths of the monks is the monastery’s librarian the venerable Jorge, who believes that humor is weakness and that laughter frees people from proper fear of God. The film ends with a solution to the conundrum of who is the murderer and why but, like The Mission, it also ends with chaos and fire as the monastery, the library and the last copy of Aristotle’s book is engulfed by flames.

From the Eden narratives (the loss of innocence, the quest for knowledge and sexuality) play a key part in The Mission, The Name of the Rose and Priest while the idea of sin is played down.

This is probably most overt in The Name of the Rose where Bro. William places great store by the process of reason and much of the plot is centered directly or indirectly on the monastery’s repository of knowledge, the library. Bro. William’s search for Aristotle’s lost work eventually takes precedence over the debate about poverty and the lives of those who are to be burnt for heresy. However, the story is not just about the quest for objective knowledge; Bro. William’s personal story is important too and, as the film unfolds, we discover more about his life and how he has changed over the years. It is William’s companion Adso who draws much of this information out of him and he also appears to play the part of student to the older Franciscan’s role of mentor, it is significant that in these films the corporate, repressive aspect of the Church is represented by one individual — a white, male authority figure. Significantly, the three films all share in the portrayal of hierarchical oppression within and without the institution of the Church. Thus, in The Mission it is both the Indians and the Jesuits who suffer at the hands of the Pope’s emissary, Altamirano; in The Name of the Rose, it is the local poor and the Franciscans who are tyrannized; while in Priest it is the bishop who is domineering and arrogant towards those who obstruct his career.

A key symbol for this repression is the Church’s attitude towards wealth, which can be represented much more tangibly on film than can, for instance, the more abstract concept of power. I have already mentioned that the reason for Bro. William being at the monastery was for a debate about whether Jesus and his disciples owned their clothes. If the answer to that is no, then the obvious next question is: Why then has the Church amassed all its wealth? This subplot is supported by the contrast between the opulent clothes of the prelates and the simple dress of the Franciscans; by the well-fed stomachs of the monks and the poverty of those who scavenge from the monastic community and by the inquisition into the heresy of the Dolcinites and their lifestyle of penitence and poverty. Similar features are to be found in The Mission. The rich clothes of the Pope’s emissary and the slave-traders contrast sharply with those of the Jesuits, while the simplicity of the wooden mission dwellings is very different to the stone houses and churches of the Europeans. The same is true of Priest, although it is more understated. The bishop’s attachment to the finer things of life are shown through a brief shot of an antique ink stand on his desk and, when the bishop wishes to show his displeasure with Fr Matthew, he takes away one of the priest’s few “luxuries” a dilapidated Mini Metro car. Although the word hypocrisy is not mentioned in any of the three films — it is there by implication. This tension between the corruption of the Church and the idealism of the individual is fundamental to the three plots and we must examine it in more detail.

Time and again in The Mission, The Name of the Rose and Priest we see the Church making demands on characters which they find difficult or impossible to accept. For Fr Gabriel and Rodrigo Mendoza it is the relinquishing of their mission and the abandonment of the Guarani Indians to the slave-trading colonialists. For Bro. William of Baskerville it is a different kind of abandon­ment. He clearly feels that he is being asked to give up the way of reason and logical argument in the face of irrationality and superstition. This idea is underlined further by the censorship of Aristotle’s work on humor by the by the librarian, the venerable Jorge. The pressure on Fr Greg Pilkington is in reconciling his sexuality, particularly his homosexuality, with the official teaching of the Church. A similar problem exists in a heterosexual context for Fr Matthew Thomas but Fr Greg also has to cope with a wider social stigma as well. This motif of male homosexuality is also a sub plot in The Name of the Rose and lies behind the first death that Bro. William is asked to investigate. The area of conflict between the individual and institutional is heightened in each case by the Church’s hypocrisy over the issue of wealth. However, if we look behind this dramatic construct it seems to me that these two elements from the three plots reflect much wider aspects of our contemporary culture.

First, the centrality of individualism in Western society is well documented but what has received less comment is the way in which the model of the individual human being has also become the model for understanding collective human organizations. In this respect “hypocrisy” (i.e. the meeting of competing demands from inconsistent environments) is seen in an individual­istic way and organizations are judged, like a person, on whether they have remained true to their ideals. Thus, just as individual hypocrisy occurs when a person fails to remain true to his or her own ideals, so organizational hypocrisy is perceived when an institution acts in different or even conflicting ways. While this makes for good drama and clear characterization, particularly in the case of the Pope’s emissary in The Mission, one of the roles that organizations can be called upon to perform is to hold together or reconcile such conflicting ideals; hence, the popularity in current organizational litera­ture for numerous diverse models or polarities marking out a spectrum of opinion. Yet, while these images allow competing convictions to be held together in the world of organizations they do not make good cinema which, as a number of commentators have noted, has been encouraged by the ideology of individualism.This is reinforced by the function of the camera which acts as the eyes of the individual viewer. It is striking that in all three films “heroic” individuals are cast against “compromised” individ­uals who represent hypocritical organizations (the pope’s emissary, Bernard Gui and the bishop).

The spectator’s identification with the camera plays an important part in the second factor on which I want to comment in this section — the concept of “role.” Identification is a key element in film theory. In their discussion of American Graffiti Lapsley and Westlake argue that the movie is, like many realist texts, concerned with the question of identity regarding the central character (Curt Henderson) and, furthermore, the identification with this character by the spectator plays a crucial role in the film: The resolution, therefore, of the question of Curt’s identity is also the production of a spectator position, one of knowledge and outside of contradiction. The spectator is seemingly outside the process and therefore can imagine him or herself as completely grasping the process.

Interestingly, the three films under discussion all revolve around pairs of characters and, in particular their justification of their role or their search for a role to play. Spectators are given a choice of identification in this process. It is not my aim to address the issue of female identification in these films, although I do recognize that with six male lead characters there are questions that can be raised regarding the place of women in all three films. Thus I shall confine my discussion to issues of identification in the area already defined — around the tension between individuals and institutions. In each film one of the male characters in the pair has arrived at an, albeit sometimes uncomfortable, accommodation with the Church (Fr Gabriel, Bro. William and Fr Matthew). They are put in a mentor role over the other character (Rodrigo Mendoza, Adso of Melk, Fr Greg) who are all learning the “script” for their part of the organization or culture which, in turn, means that the process of identification is taking place at a number of levels. To start with a spectator may identify with one or other of the two roles (mentor/student) or with the relationship or with the wider tension between the characters and the institution.

Curiously, while some people writing about cinema have criticized it for attempting to mimic the real world, others dealing with the “real” world have been keen to take up images drawn from the “fictional” world of theatre and film. Thus, the metaphors of role and script have been used to explore human social and organizational interaction. Role has been described as “A central unit of analysis in sociology and social psychology. It refers to the duties, obligations and expectation which accompany a particular position”. The idea of a script in a group context, meanwhile, refers to: “meaning-making processes within organizations . routinized responses [which] . . . facilitate the interpretation of information, actions and expectations”.

This suggests that the traditional distinction between “reality” and “fiction” is too easily drawn as well as pointing to the deeper problems of identification underlying The Mission, The Name of the Rose, and Priest. All of them seem to reflect the dysfunction in our late twentieth-century Western culture between individuals and institutions, in this case the Church. The conflict between personal lives and communal expectations is a conflict of identification, roles and scripts. There are many “parts” to play and many “film-sets” on which to play them, even in one pluralistic organization such as the Church. The dysfunctions and tensions that Rodrigo, Adso and Fr Greg face are very real in the Church but they also work as a metaphor for the issues that confront us all in learning roles and scripts in society.

Of the three films The Name of the Rose is most overt with its references to Armageddon and other motifs from the Book of Revelation but these particular movies, and others, can be seen in a wider teleological framework, pattern of ideals or ultimate human fulfilment. However, telos is not just about human goals, there is an important chronological element as well. In his discussion of Blade Runner and Wings of Desire, David Harvey suggests these two movies highlight the fact that in our culture “there is a crisis of representation of space and time”. A crucial component of this crisis appears to be the central characters’ detachment from any sense of past or history. Such a view seems to link up to Maclntyre’s analysis of our detached post-Enlightenment condition and the need to discover a renewed understanding of the human telos. In other words, a vision of our history is fundamental to our vision of the future, while an understanding of our future is vital to our actions in the present. Thus, Maclntyre believes the past should be regarded “neither as mere prologue nor as something to be struggled against, but as that from which we learn if we are to identify and move towards our telos more adequately”. Harvey is critical of how Wings of Desire and, to a lesser extent, Blade Runner resolve themselves through romanticism. Neither film, he argues: “has the power to overturn established ways of seeing or transcend the conflictual conditions of the moment”.

There is common ground here with the ending of Priest in which those members of the congregation who cannot accept Fr Greg are asked to leave the parish before the service begins then, as the worship progresses, the gay cleric and the abused daughter embrace during the administration of commun­ion and the film closes. The perceptions of some within the institution about gay men has not been “overturned,” the dissatisfied members of the congre­gation have merely left that church. Reconciliation is discovered at a personal, rather than communal, level and the future is portrayed in terms of the oppressed embracing and supporting each other rather than being embraced and supported by society at large. Furthermore, there is no sense in which the past has been reclaimed or retold. The Church remains an institution of oppression and the figure of Jesus on the cross is frequently used as a focus for that view. There is no perception from the characters in this film that Jesus himself can be seen as someone on the margins of his society and religious establishment.

The Mission and The Name of the Rose do attempt to retell and reappropriate the past. Although the latter film never escapes its literary origins and even in its motion picture version keeps the role of the narrator (Adso of Melk) to provide its framework, it does attempt to forge a link with the flow of history. The Mission too, while retaining a firm grip on its realist pretensions, also clearly establishes similar connections. It is framed by the words: “The historical events represented in this story are true, and occurred around the borderlands of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil in the year 1750.”

The movie finishes with a caption about the ongoing struggle of the Native Indians and the priests: The Indians of South America are still engaged in a struggle to defend their land and their culture. Many of the priests who, inspired by faith and love, continue to support the rights of the Indians for justice, do so with their lives.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. John Chapter 1, verse 5

Thus the past is re-appropriated and the narrative is not left rootless, although there may be questions about using uncritically the stereotype of an intimate connection between Christianity and colonialism.

Priest ends with strong echoes of the heavenly telos presented in the Book of Revelation, symbolizing an ultimate goal. In Revelation, after the tribula­tions of the end times, the community of the Lamb (the eucharistic community) are embraced by God’s love and gathered in worship wearing symbolic white robes (Rev. 7). At the end of Priest, after many trials, the abused daughter and the abused priest embrace in love at mass in a similar eucharistic context (the community of the Lamb) – a parallel that is underscored by the white vestments of the clergy. By contrast, The Mission and The Name of the Rose bear more than a passing resemblance to that alternative telos envisaged by Revelation – the violent and cataclysmic end to space and time. There is a hint of this fiery and violent ending in the myth of the lost innocence where Adam and Eve are prevented from ever returning to the Garden of Eden by the presence of an angel with a flaming sword (Gen. 3:23-4). The “apocalyptic” ending is clearly conscious in The Name of the Rose because, as we noted earlier, Eco based his novel on the seven plagues of Revelation 15 (Eco 1985) but the similarity with the way in which The Mission concludes is striking. It is tempting to note one of the main concerns in the West at the time these two films were made was the destruction of society through nuclear conflict, whereas Priest was made in a very different cultural environment with great fear over the destruction of lives through AIDS.

In The Name of the Rose there is a discussion between Bro. William and the venerable Jorge over the question of humor. The librarian believes that it would be a recipe for chaos if humanity was permitted to laugh at everything and that: “Laughter kills fear and without fear there can be no faith.. ..”

Laughter plays a small but crucial role in the other two films as well. Fr Greg is sent away from the parish for a period of readjustment with an austere priest who will only speak Latin to him and clearly regards him with loathing. There is a moment of conspiracy between Fr Matthew and Fr Greg when they use laughter to cement their bond as friends and priests, while at the same time seeing off any fear of this priest and, I suspect, the bishop and the institutional Church. In this respect Jorge was right. Humor has a complex place within groups relating to testing social phenomena like taboos, shared trust and conformity. Jorge is right in seeing that laughter and fear are intimately related and that the former can kill the latter. However, it is also true that laughter can bring fear to the surface.

In The Mission, after discovering that Carlotta loves his brother instead of himself, Rodrigo storms back out into the street and picks an argument with a bystander who was laughing at something unrelated but who Rodrigo, in his state of mind, thinks is laughing at him. His brother chases him and says that Rodrigo’s argument is with him and not with this stranger. The ensuing duel and killing is crucial to moving the plot forward. None of these three films could be remotely described as comedies and yet laughter plays an important point in each of them. If the romantic view of Armageddon, or the human telos, is a loving embrace and the radical vision is the destruction of existing order — is it the cynic who is left to laugh at our fragile efforts to reconcile our personal values and our communal lives?

I have argued that The Mission, The Name of the Rose, and Priest dramatically explore a number of aspects of the human condition: our quest for a teleological frame of reference, our communal search for meaningful roles and scripts and the double-edged nature of the human desire for knowledge with its concomitant loss of childlike innocence. In addition, I have suggested that there are various overt or subtle cross-references to the myths of Eden and Armageddon in the Jewish and Christian traditions. The three films all have a distinct moment of closure which returns the focus to individuals. For the first two it is a concluding word from the narrators (the pope’s emissary and Adso), while for Priest it is the hug for Fr Greg and Lisa in the context of the mass. I have touched on the importance of individuality in movies as a genre, even in representing organizations. Perhaps one of their functions in modern, or even postmodern, society is in providing tragic and comedic narrative for us to explore our identities and roles. As Umberto Eco points out in his observations about The Name of the Rose: a novel has nothing to do with words in the first instance. Writing a novel is a cosmological matter, like the story told by Genesis (we all have to choose our role models, as Woody Allen puts it).

The same (individualistic) God-like perspective may also be reflected in both the process of making a film and, indeed, the creative act of watching it. . Explorations in Theology and Film: Movies and Meaning – ed. Clive Marsh & Gaye Ortiz pp. 181f

Adso of Melk: Master? Have you ever been in love?

William of Baskerville: In love? Yeah, many times.

Adso of Melk: You were?

William of Baskerville: Yes, of course. Aristotle, Ovid, Vergil…

Adso of Melk: No, no, no. I meant with a…

William of Baskerville: Oh. Ah. Are you not confusing love with lust?

Adso of Melk: Am I? I don’t know. I want only her own good. I want her to be happy. I want to save her from her poverty.

William of Baskerville: Oh, dear.

Adso of Melk: Why “oh dear”?

William of Baskerville: You *are* in love.

Adso of Melk: Is that bad?

William of Baskerville: For a monk, it does present certain problems.

Adso of Melk: But doesn’t St. Thomas Aquinas praise love above all other virtues?

William of Baskerville: Yes, the love of God, Adso. The love of God.

Adso of Melk: Oh… And the love of woman?

William of Baskerville: Of woman? Thomas Aquinas knew precious little, but the scriptures are very clear. Proverbs warns us, “Woman takes possession of a man’s precious soul”, while Ecclesiastes tells us, “More bitter than death is woman”.

Adso of Melk: Yes, but what do you think, Master?

William of Baskerville: Well, of course I don’t have the benefit of your experience, but I find it difficult to convince myself that God would have introduced such a foul being into creation without endowing her with *some* virtures. Hmm? How peaceful life would be without love, Adso, how safe, how tranquil, and how dull.

William of Baskerville: My venerable brother, there are many books that speak of comedy. Why does this one fill you with such fear?

Jorge de Burgos: Because it’s by Aristotle.

William of Baskerville: [Chasing after Jorge who runs with the Second Book of Poetics by Aristotle intending to destroy it] But what is so alarming about laughter?

Jorge de Burgos: Laughter kills fear, and without fear there can be no faith because without fear of the Devil, there is no more need of God.

William of Baskerville: But you will not eliminate laughter by eliminating that book.

Jorge de Burgos: No, to be sure, laughter will remain the common man’s recreation. But what will happen if, because of this book, learned men were to pronounce it admissable to laugh at everything? Can we laugh at God? The world would relapse into chaos! Therefore, I seal that which was not to be said. [he eats the poisoned pages of the book] In the tomb I become. [he tosses the book at the candle, which ignites a fire that destroys all the books in the abbey tower]

[last lines] Voice of Adso as an Old Man: I have never regretted my decision, for I learned from my master much that was wise and good and true. When at last we parted company, he presented me with his eyeglasses. I was still young – he said – but someday they would serve me well. And in fact, I’m wearing them now on my nose as I write these lines. Then he embraced me fondly – like a father – and sent me on my way. I never saw him again, and know not what became of him, but I pray always that God received his soul, and forgave the many little vanities to which he was driven by his intellectual pride. And yet, now that I am an old, old man, I must confess that of all the faces that appear to me out of the past, the one I see most clearly is that of the girl of whom I’ve never ceased to dream these many long years. She was the only earthly love in my life, yet [pause] I never knew, nor ever learned, her name.

William of Baskerville: Adso, if I knew the answers to everything, I would be teaching theology in Paris.

William of Baskerville: But what is so alarming about laughter?

Jorge de Burgos: Laughter kills fear, and without fear there can be no faith, because without fear of the Devil there is no more need of God.

William of Baskerville: [after finding the secret room of books in the tower] How many more rooms? Ah! How many more books? No one should be forbidden to consult these books freely.

Adso of Melk: Perhaps they are thought to be too precious, too fragile.

William of Baskerville: No, it’s not that, Adso. It’s because they often contain a wisdom that is different from ours and ideas that could encourage us to doubt the infallability of the word of God… And doubt, Adso, is the enemy of faith.

Voice of Adso as an Old Man: Who was she? Who was this creature that rose like the dawn, as bewitching as the moon, radiant as the sun, terrible as an army poised for battle?

Jorge de Burgos: Laughter is a devilish wind which deforms, uh, the lineaments of the face and makes men look like monkeys.

William of Baskerville: Monkeys do not laugh. Laughter is particular to men.

Jorge de Burgos: As is sin. Christ never laughed.

William of Baskerville: Can we be so sure?

Jorge de Burgos: There is nothing in the Scriptures to say that he did.

William of Baskerville: And there’s nothing in the Scriptures to say that he did not. Why, even the saints have been known to employ comedy, to ridicule the enemies of the Faith. For example, when the pagans plunged St. Maurice into the boiling water, he complained that his bath was too cold. The Sultan put his hand in… scalded himself.

William of Baskerville: She is already burnt flesh, Adso. Bernardo Gui has spoken: she is a witch.

Adso of Melk: But that’s not true, and you know it!

William of Baskerville: I know. I also know that anyone who disputes the verdict of an Inquisitor is guilty of heresy.

Adso of Melk: Do you think that this is a place abandoned by God?

William of Baskerville: Have you ever known a place where God WOULD have felt at home?

William of Baskerville: My dear Adso, we must not allow ourselves to be influenced by irrational rumors of the Antichrist, hmm? Let us instead exercise our brains and try to solve this tantalizing conundrum.

[after seeing a rat while searching for a secret route to the library] William of Baskerville: The rats love parchment even more than scholars do. Let’s follow him!

William of Baskerville: I too was an Inquisitor, but in the early days, when the Inquisition strove to guide, not to punish. And once I had to preside at a trial of a man whose only crime was to have translated a Greek book that conflicted with the Holy Scriptures. Bernardo Gui wanted him condemned as a heretic; I – acquitted the man. Then Bernardo Gui accused *me* of heresy, for having defended him. I appealed to the Pope. I – I was put in prison, tortured, and… and I recanted.

Adso of Melk: What happened then?

William of Baskerville: The man was burned at the stake and I am still alive.

William of Baskerville: The only evidence I see of the antichrist here is everyones desire to see him at work.

[first lines] Voice of Adso as an Old Man: Having reached the end of my poor sinner’s life, my hair now white, I prepare to leave on this parchment my testimony as to the wondrous and terrible events that I witnessed in my youth, towards the end of the year of our Lord 1327. May God grant me the wisdom and grace to be the faithful chronicler of the happenings that took place in a remote abbey in the dark north of Italy. An abbey whose name it seems, even now, pious and prudent to omit.

Adso of Melk: And what was the word you both kept mentioning?

William of Baskerville: Penitenziagite.

Adso of Melk: What does it mean?

William of Baskerville: It means that the hunchback undoubtedly was once a heretic. Penitenziagite was a rallying cry of the dolcinites.

Adso of Melk: Dolcinites? Who were they, master?

William of Baskerville: Those who believed in the poverty of Christ.

Adso of Melk: So do we Franciscans.

William of Baskerville: But they also declared that everyone must be poor, so they slaughtered the rich. Ha! You see, Adso, the step between ecstatic vision and sinful frenzy is all too brief.

Adso of Melk: [looking at the Hunchback] Well, then, could he not have killed the translator?

William of Baskerville: No. No, fat bishops and wealthy priests were more to the taste of the dolcinites, hardly a specialist of Aristotle.

[Ubertino is talking man-to-man with Adso, showing him a statue of the Virgin Mary] She’s beautiful, is she not? When the female, by nature so perverse, becomes sublime by holiness, then she can be the noblest vehicle of grace. [in Latin] Beautiful are the breasts that protrude just a little.

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