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A film starring Sean Connery as a Franciscan monk investigating a series of murders in an isolated Benedictine Abbey with Christian Slater as his junior apprentice, discovering the difference between love of faith and love of flesh sounds like an odd premise, but is actually a brilliant film that deserves a look. Based on the book of the same title by Umberti Eco, itself a challenging and demanding read, the film adaptation is a dark and heavy work that drips with atmosphere, excels in its realism and is a singularly heartbreaking yet inspiring experience.
The story revolves around William of Baskerville (Connery), a wise and intellectually prideful monk known for his deductive reasoning, and one who has questioned the direction and interpretation of the current politically-centered church. This is in the time of the Inquisition and their ruthless rule over the land is an omnipresent fear. He is called to the abby to help solve a curious death in hopes of avoiding The Inquisition’s entanglements and brings along his pupil, a young man named Adso (Slater). Adso is a dedicated but naive boy who greatly admires his mentor but is not fully focused to the commitments of the order.
The abby is famed for its scriptorium where scribes copy, translate and illustrate books, the newer works by younger monks. It is these monks who are steadily dying off and William faces the powerful blind faith of the abby as proof of devilish deeds as he struggles to instruct Adso of the science. This is the core of the film’s plot and one that is gripping in its execution. But the heart of it is really about the boy learning from his master about the less supernatural ways the world works and along the way finding something entirely unexpected in and encounter with someone not of the abby.
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, The Name of the Rose is a gloriously atmospheric film that feels unlike any other, resistant of a genre. Connery is well cast, playing against type and his heavy, dour approach fits with precision-like molding to the role of a man warmed by his faith but suffocated by the its misuse around him. Slater, appropriately young, shines as bewildered and wonder-filled boy who grows up fast by necessity as his faith is tested in more ways than one. While perhaps not for everyone, this richly layered and well-paced film is a minor masterpiece.
Adso is still mostly a child, a teenager in 1327 trying to dedicate his life to God and the faith he is still learning to understand. In the educated fold of William, he is taught to explore that faith and its calling while still respecting the laws of nature and science, gifts William sees as fruits of said faith. The abby is a testing ground for these elements as the compound is a dark pool of death, mistrust, ignorance and temptation.
The greatest temptation comes in the form of a peasant girl who begs for food and is so uneducated she can’t speak. More creature than human, she, like others, huddles around he abby’s cliff face, waiting for discarded food sent tumbling out of the abby from a chute. One evening, as Adso (Slater) is in the abbey kitchen, he encounters the ingenue (played by Valentina Vargas), who has snuck into the abby, most likely to trade her body for food. In a startling raw and graphic moment, she seduces the boy.
Sex in movies is a tightrope. It drives the plot of countless films in all genres and can be a powerful tool in character development, motivation, comedy, or just plain gratuity. Often is the reason a film exists, with many great thrillers and romances finding ways to make it the center of their stories (the 90s were a hot bed of such titles). The remarkable thing about The Name of the Rose is how sublimely well sex is positioned as the very reason this story exists as well, despite its brief appearance and seemingly inconsequential addition to the story that betrays its strength. Framed as a murder mystery, it is anything but. This is about lost innocence and challenge to faith. And the sex is the keystone to it all.
That sex starts and ends without a single word. The nameless girl, a natural beauty, ripe with sexuality despite her unkempt and slatternly appearance, hungrily approaches the beguiled young man, who most likely has never even been this close to a girl, let alone intimate. She straddles him and disrobes, exposing her breasts, which, as he knows and has been taught, represent the sins of flesh. He closes his eyes, struggling to understand what his happening both emotionally and physically to his body. He is soon overcome by her need (and suddenly his own), and awkwardly, yet somehow knowingly, as nature leads him, falls into the motions.
There is a knowing in her eyes, either by experience or by instinct, that this young monk is inexperienced. This provides her too with something new, and his tender eyes and soft hands are as much an allure for her as her flesh is to him. She is a destitute girl, living in the savages of a harsh land, a bitter cold existence that is kept alive by what being a female affords her. She has no doubt been under the touch of a brutal lovers, abusers who offer her scraps for a moment’s release. It’s the only life she knows, a feral existence of food and sex. Adso is different, and she welcomes the warmth and compassion. This boy is unlike any she has ever known.
There is a key moment to this scene, even though the act entire is crucial. As she pulls him to the floor so she can lay atop him, she strips way her tattered robe and opens herself to him and there is a hesitation in his acceptance. His hands reach up from the shadows, his face unseen as we watch from behind. They seem to ask for help, and then clench with futility and defeat before finally touching her flesh. It is the resignation of his faith, if only for a moment, then succumbing to the lust. It’s absolutely pivotal.
What happens though, and perhaps what many feel the first time they have sex, is an emotional rush, a surrender to the other person that expresses trust and vulnerability. Adso has no experience, no sense of what physical love is, only what has been taught. His passion for his faith is all he has known, but he has been curious, even speaking with William about his own relationships with women. Here, with this act, the powerful sense of oneness with a stranger, a girl . . . it doesn’t feel evil, or even wrong. It feels instead like a real passion, an awakening that wholly alters him. It challenges everything he has come to cherish and makes him question his own devotion to a faith that has in fact, led him straight to this point.
When it’s over, the story moves on and we return to the complex and chilling main story, where the Inquisition arrives and the church itself faces its own tragic dilemma. From Adso’s single physical transgression, we believe it a hurdle for his faith, and indeed it is. But what we don’t expect is how much so. As the story builds, we witness the girl become a target of heresy by the Inquisitors, and she plays a bigger part in story of the prosecutorial wrath of the church. Her fate I will let you discover on your own, but as the closing moments arrive, and we believe the story concluded, we see Adso face a final choice, and his last words sting with unbearable hope and heartache as the title and the girl come full circle in one of film’s most touching and sentimental moments. All from a single night of sex.