A lot of our perception of the Middle Ages comes from previous Hollywood movies, such as Robin Hood and Excalibur. In reality, Europe of the Middle Ages was dark, damp, and dirty, there was no middle-class, and the clergy and the nobility ran society like dictators. Consideration of personal hygiene was almost non-existent, medical practices were atrocious, and the search for knowledge was discouraged by the church. Aside from the great Gothic cathedrals, much of the architecture was comprised of either large stone buildings or small shacks for the peasantry. And religious fanaticism raged all over Christendom. If you weren't fearing for your life in the hereafter because of sin, you might be worried that the church would haul you in on charges of heresy. But there was one small consolation: it was the period when some of the most beautiful books ever created first appeared by the artistic hands of monks in scriptoriums. This is the world of "The Name of the Rose", the film adaption of the novel by Umberto Eco.
The story concerns several murders that take place in a medieval monastery circa 1327. But this monastery is special (although essentially fictional): it contains one of the greatest and most extensive libraries in all of Medieval Europe. Not all aspects of the Middle Ages were gloom and doom. The age produced some of the most extravagantly beautiful hand-written books western society has ever seen. The large ornamented calligraphy was adorned by beautiful illuminations in the margins, artwork that surrounded the text. (The art of hand illumination has been subsequently lost to modern printing innovations.)
William of Baskerville (Sean Connery), a Franciscan monk, and his pupil Adso (Christian Slater) arrive at this Benedictine monastery hidden in the snow-clad mountains presumably near the border of Italy and modern-day Switzerland. At this time, the Franciscans were a relatively new monastic order, their order barely 100 years old, as compared to the Benedictines that by this time had boasted an 800-year history. William and Adso learn about the death of one of the monastery's best illuminators who worked in the monastery's scriptorium. The scriptorium was the area of a medieval monastery in which monks copied, illuminated and illustrated books. The story becomes a narrative about medieval books, classical writings, and the power of thought--medieval thought versus classical (aka Ancient Greek) sensibilities. As William of Baskerville (so-named referencing Sherlock Holmes) begins to piece together the puzzle, he realizes that the death has much to do with the library and its books, and possibly one book in particular.
Although this is a loose adaption of the book, the film "The Name of the Rose" is one of the best depictions of the Middle Ages. Unlike most Hollywood offerings concerning the same period, the actors in "The Name of the Rose" were probably similar to the strange-looking and care-worn monks that habituated 14th-century monastic life. Most of these people (save the two Hollywood actors Sean Connery and Christian Slater) are gaunt and less unattractive people occupying large drafty buildings full of stench and grime. Their lives amounted to sleeping, eating, working, and worship. Leisure was not just avoided, it was largely unknown. Their only solace is the beautiful Gregorian Chant that echos through the Church Sanctuary during morning and evening services.
No one in this movie is particularly attractive, and there are even a character or two who will make you cringe. The cast, mostly made up of French, Italian, and American actors, is outstanding with a few notable standouts. Ron Perlman as Salvatore, a dim-witted hunchback who doesn't know whether he's speaking Latin, Italian or French is the absolute tour-de-force performance of the film. His portrayal is worth the price of admission alone. I didn't realize the actor was actually American until much later! Feodor Chaliapin as the venerable Jorge, an aging blind monk that does not let his age nor his blindness interfere with his expressing opinion gives a stalwart performance. Volker Prechtel as the stoic librarian and supervisor of the scriptorium; his character could give any modern-day spinster a run for her money. William Hickey as Ubertino of Casale, an exiled Franciscan who is strangely lovable despite his age and his dying teeth! And F. Murray Abraham (of Salieri fame in Amadeus) is also memorable as the historical figure Bernardo Gui, a true-to-life 14th-century inquisitor. You really believe you are walking in the 14th century among these people. But would you want to invite them for coffee?
This is an outstanding film, granted not exactly escapist and definitely not for the feint of heart. Simultaneously, this movie provides a window into the world of Western Europe 700 years ago, when democracy did not exist, people were stratified, religious fanaticism the norm, and the world was lit only by fire. A compelling time and a compelling subject. Personally I love to study Middle Ages and its history and culture. Would I ever want to live back then? Not on your life. I'll use movies and books instead like the Name of the Rose.