Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Name of the Rose


I continue to be extremely busy putting together my new theatrical spectacular, Aida on Ice in which I will perform the title role. This Tonya Harding person, and my, isn't she a bit of an Amazon, has agreed to be my skating coach for the duration and we are to begin work in earnest tomorrow at some dazzling routines for the big numbers, especially the triumphal march. She absolutely refuses, however, to work in my private rehearsal studio with Wesson oil covering the parquet and is insisting on real ice. Mr. Brad, my private interior designer, is busy flooding it as we speak and rearranging the air conditioning ducts to produce the desired effect by morning. I've been told I'll have to purchase something called a zamboni for maintenance. I don't see what Italian food and ice skating have to do with each other so I'm leaving that to the technical people.

Bob Mackie has, of course, agreed to work with me on some of the epic costumes. He's promised an introduction to Siegfried and Roy whom I hope will join the team as animal handlers for all those lions and elephants and things we'll need for the big production numbers. I have a call in to Tony Walton about the sets. Now that Cats has closed in New York, I might be able to get a deal on some of the turntables and things out of the Winter Garden and save some on the budget. I'm not sure exactly where the budget for this whole extravaganza is going to come from, but my accountant is very excited by a deal he's working on with Arthur Andersen. Something about the Enron Employee's Pension Fund.

I did get a quick minute to relax briefly in my home theater and, while channel surfing, I ran across Jean-Jacques Annaud's 1986 film version of The Name of the Rose so I settled in for several hours of mysterious goings on in a Medieval monastery. The film is based on a celebrated Italian novel by Umberto Eco. Eco was an obscure professor of semiotics until his first novel, of the same title, became a worldwide best seller in multiple languages in the early 80s. The novel, a careful reconstruction of late medieval monastic life, built around a serpentine mystery plot involving murder and manuscripts, was liberally sprinkled with medieval Latin, obscure symbolism, and a density of language, but the strong narrative through line carried the reader along. His subsequent novels, missing this careful plot construction, are much less successful.

At the time, there was argument as to whether the novel was filmable using conventional techniques and various iterations of a screenplay kicked around Hollywood. I read for the part of Salvatore several times. Eventually, European money and an international cast were assembled and the movie was shot primarily in Germany in various surviving medieval buildings. Sean Connery was brought in as a star. The film did poorly in US release but was a major hit in Europe.

The time is 1327 - the tumultuous early 14th century when Europe was falling apart under the pressures of the 100 years war, and the great schism and the black death lurked just around the corner. At an isolated Benedictine monastery, members of the Franciscan order and Papal legates gather to battle over the issue of church wealth. Charges and counter-charges of heresy abound and the Inquisition is in full swing. A young illuminator from the scriptorium has died mysteriously in a hailstorm and Franciscan Friar, William of Baskerville (Connery), playing a medieval variant on Sherlock Holmes, is asked by the abbot (Michael Lonsdale) to investigate. When a second monk is found dead, submerged in a cauldron of blood from the slaughterhouse, the inhabitants of the monastery start to panic, linking the deaths to the seven trumpets of the apocalypse (the first bringing hail, the second blood) and assume there is a curse on the abbey. Baskerville and his young novice, Adso (Christian Slater), race against time to unravel the secrets of the abbey and its library before the inquisition, in the person of the evil Bernardo Gui (F. Murray Abraham), can act against the innocent.

The look and style of the film are sumptuous. The designers have taken great care to create a real medieval world, full of dirt, on the one hand, and great opulence on the other. Only the mysterious library fails, with its interior looking more like an Escher lithograph than any true architecture of the time. The cast adds to the look with some of the most interesting looking faces in film appearing in supporting roles as the various monks and friars including Ron Perlman as the half mad Salvatore, William Hickey as the friar Ubertino and Feodor Chaliapin as the blind librarian, Jorge.

The performances, for the most part are quite successful. Connery, as the driven William, brings his unique brand of dominant humanity to his role. He carries the film effortlessly and bridges some of the lapses in storytelling with the firmness of his convictions. At times, it's easy to transform his monk's robe into an Inverness cape and deerstalker hat but that's the way the part is written. Slater, only 15 or 16 at the time of the filming, makes a great foil for Connery and it's easy to see the bond between the two. Puritans take note - Slater has an explicit sex scene that's necessary for both plot and theme and which I would not designate as child pornography in any way despite his young age. Only F. Murray Abraham falls down on the job a bit, playing his inquisitor with all the subtlety of Snidely Whiplash, complete with rolling of eyes and gnashing of teeth.

The screenplay does convey the essence of the novel, but loses much of the source's richness. There are a number of lacunae in the plot which suggest that scenes may have been excised for time purposes (perhaps there will be an extended version on DVD some day). The script is also credited to four writers and there are times when it seems to be pulling in two directions at once, one more faithful to the elliptical storytelling of the novel, and the other toward more conventional Hollywood whodunit techniques.

All in all, the film succeeds on the shoulders of Connery and its visual design. It's certainly worth two hours and ten minutes of time some evening.

Blackened fingers. Footprints in the snow. Peasants feasting on garbage. Drowned fat man. Cow heart. Death by falling. Death by fire. Death by impalement. Lost manuscripts. Familiarity with Aristotle. Primitive spectacles.

No comments:

Post a Comment