The Name of the Rose (1986)
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, The Name of the Rose, released by Twentieth Century Fox in 1986, is a “palimpsest” based on Umberto Eco’s novel of the same name. The film takes place in an abbey in Northern Italy in 1327. William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) and Adso of Melk (Christian Slater) arrive at the abbey with the sole expectation of attending theological debate about the poverty controversy that was dividing the Franciscan order. Upon their arrival, the Abbot (Michael Lonsdale) asks William of Baskerville, who had previous experience in solving mysteries, to verify the suspicious suicide of a famous illuminator, the monk Adelmo. Soon after, however, several monks are murdered and William of Baskerville is no longer tasked with solving the murder of one monk, but several. Representations of social class, gender, sexuality, and religion are seen throughout the film, and most evident in: the discussions of poverty of both Jesus Christ and members of the community, Adso’s sexual encounter with a nameless woman, Adelmo’s sexual interactions with Berengar (Michael Habeck), and the accusations of heresy that require the interference of the Holy Inquisition.
The film opens with William and Adso arriving at the abbey to attend a debate about the poverty controversy within their order, and some of these arguments focused on the poverty of Jesus Christ himself. William, a Franciscan friar, is invited to the abbey, with the Benedictines presiding over the debate, to determine whether Jesus Christ owned the clothes he wore. This debate would have determined whether the friars should relinquish their property (Combs, 54). The Franciscans’ debate about whether to live a life of wealth or corporate poverty stands in for some of the real the discussions and anxieties about the Church’s wealth throughout the later middle ages. The debate about poverty within the Franciscan order is also juxtaposed in the film with depictions of impoverished peasants waiting on food scraps to be thrown out by the church tower and their filthy living conditions. Both of these groups are considered poor, yet the “impoverished” members of the Church are sheltered, clothed, and fed, sometimes luxuriously. Thus, the filmmakers imply that the peasants’ poverty is real, while Franciscan poverty is performative. One scholar, Nickolas Haydock, believes this debate reflects modern debates between communists and socialists: “The quietly momentous debate over Christ’s ownership of the clothes he wore is for Annaud a distant echo of the battle between capitalism and socialism. . . The formation of a persecuting society, said to have begun in the middle ages, can then be seen behind the rise of capitalism but is responsible for the failure of socialism as well” (32). Thus, the filmmakers are not only commenting on the definition of poverty, but also might have been reflecting on the political climate during which the film is made.
The primary representation of gender relations seen in the film occurs most dramatically when the inexperienced Adso engages in carnal activity with one of the poor women in the community. After being bribed with food by Remigio, the nameless woman agrees to have sex with Adso. Adso, a friar-in-training, is forbidden to engage in sexual activity because of his vows of celibacy. Her lack of a name alludes to the broader treatment of gender—particularly women— in the film. Her namelessness represents her lack of identity and voice. Although she is mute, when she does try to communicate men tend to interrupt her—Remigio (Helmut Qualtinger), Bernard Gui (F. Murray Abraham), and Salvatore (Ron Perlman) (Strong, 299). Gui, the inquisitor, has his men strip and search her without consent, which further enhances her already anonymous identity and lack of voice. Gui charges her for witchcraft (and attempts to burn her at the stake), a charge that was increasingly gendered female in the later middle ages and beyond. Remigio and Gui also subject her to “fetishistic scopophilia,” which is pleasure that occurs when looking at erotic objects (Strong, 299). Although this woman is shown throughout the film, she is defined by her sexuality and her victimization.
While the nameless woman, and her relationship to Adso, represents heteronormative sexuality, the interactions between Berengar and Adelmo illustrate the film’s treatment of homosexual desire. Berengar, who has a proclivity for looking at younger men in the abbey, allows Adelmo to have access to a forbidden Aristotelian book in exchange for sexual favors. Adelmo agrees and eventually, feeling remorseful for his actions, commits suicide. The film’s treatment of homosexuality seems to allude to the Church’s general attitudes towards homosexuality during the fourteenth century, in which homosexuality was seen as a sinful act (Boswell, 289). One could also interpret Berengar’s character as a commentary on the HIVS/AIDS epidemic that was garnering attention when the film was created. Indeed, Steven F. Kruger argues that the exclusion of queers in the middle ages mimics the exclusion of the gay community during the HIV/AIDS crisis (255).
Two noteworthy examples of religious differences in The Name of the Rose are seen in the treatment of the Dulcinites and the adversarial relationship between the Franciscan William of Baskerville and Bernard Gui, who is a Dominican inquisitor. In the first example, after Adso first encounters Salvatore, who has once been accused of the Dulcinite heresy, William tells Adso of the Dulcinites. The Dulcinites were a heretical sect that murdered wealthy church officials because they believed that everyone should live a life of poverty—even the church. Members of this heretical sect included not only Salvatore, but also Remigio, who later admits to his affiliation with the Dulcinites and his murderous behavior. Religious and even social difference is highlighted because the Dulcinites are willing to kill to cleanse the Church of its materialism, of which monastic orders like the Benedictines were often accused. Thus, the filmmakers seem to be highlighting some of the anxieties that people had during the middle ages about the Church’s lack of austerity.
The different types of punishments that William of Baskerville and Bernard Gui administer to accused heretics further emphasize religious differences depicted in the film. William reveals that he was once a member of the Holy Inquisition. While a member of the Holy Inquisition, Gui attempted to charge a man of a heretical act and punish him by burning him at the stake. William defended the man after believing he was innocent and was charged with heresy himself. He rescinded his confession and the man was killed. William of Baskerville sought to find the truth through logic and rational investigation, while Bernard Gui seems to depend solely on faith, punishment, and torture. Debates about how to best arrive at truth are seen in the writings of medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas, who relied on faith and reason when trying to understand the existence of God.
While the film does highlight many concerns about social class, gender, sexuality, and religion in 1327, the film is a mystery film first, a history film second. In the title card, the filmmakers declare this film to be a palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel and, in doing so, it allows them to create their own version of the story while incorporating elements Eco's original work. Indeed, the scenery, wardrobe, and even the behavior in the film makes one feel as though one is in the middle ages (Haydock, 31). The filmmakers are successful in creating a historically rich film that also caters to audiences who can appreciate the film’s medieval imagery.
Boswell, John. Christianity, social tolerance, and homosexuality: Gay people in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Burger, Glenn, and Steven F. Kruger. Queering the Middle Ages. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 2001.
Haydock, Nickolas. Movie Medievalism: The Imaginary Middle Ages. North Carolina: McFarland, 2008.
Lansing, Carol. “Thomas Aquinas: Summa Contra Gentiles, on faith and reason.” UC Santa Barbara. http://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/lansing/classes/hist4b/materials/Week4.pdf. (accessed May 4, 2018)
Strong, Jeremy. "Reconstructing the Rose Or how Joining the Dots (Generally) Makes the Picture." Literature/Film Quarterly XXXIX.4 (2011): 297-305.
"Name Der Rose, Der/ the Name of the Rose." Monthly Film Bulletin (Feb 1987): 53.
Tobey, Matthew. “The Name of the Rose.” AllMovie.com. https://www.allmovie.com/movie/the-name-of-the-rose-v34422. (accessed March 7, 2018).
Late Middle Ages (c. 1300-1500)