“And tell me if you like the rose.” As a child, I had never seen how beautiful she was; now that I am not as young, it surprises me. For the friend to whom I have spoken, it should be very plain; he smiles, tight mouthed, thinking of something else.
We are speaking about “The Name of the Rose,” a mystery film based on Umberto Eco’s far drier novel of the same name. A forward-thinking monk named William of Baskerville and his novice Adso visit a remote abbey in the Italian winter, and become aware of a series of gruesome murders that seem to be connected with the abbey’s famed library. The abbot agrees to let William investigate the matter, albeit discreetly; William finds that the deaths are caused by poison administered through the handling of a book that the elderly monk Jorge de Burgos wishes no one to read because it concerns laughter, to which he is fanatically opposed. During the investigation, Adso becomes infatuated with a peasant girl after a chance sexual encounter; the girl is later accused of witchcraft by the inquisitor Bernardo Gui, who has been called upon by the abbot to cleanse the abbey of its sins, and is prepared to be burnt at the stake along with two other scapegoats: Remigio the cellarer and his distasteful companion Salvatore. Meanwhile, Adso and his master corner Jorge in the library, and he knocks over a lantern to distract them, burning down the entire structure with himself in it. Attracted by the spectacle, the other monks leave the site of the witch-burning so that while Remigio and Salvatore perish, their fires having been lit first, the peasant girl remains untouched. At the end of the movie, with the entire story out in the open, Adso happens upon the girl as he leaves the abbey for good. They exchange a short moment of tenderness before he rides off with William into the mountain fog.
It is the sins in the film, and not the virtues, that lead us to the truth. Bernardo Gui accuses Remigio and Salvatore of false crimes in the name of pious justice; the elder monks groan in fatalistic agony, certain that the murders signal the coming Apocalypse; it is intense piety, or rather an odd shade of it, that drives Jorge to obscure the book for which he murders. It is not only that virtues misdirect or justify misdirection, but also that they are themselves equivocal: both Franciscans and Dolcinians pursue poverty as a virtue, but while one order is revered for its piety, the other is condemned as a heretical cult simply because of the extent to which the belief is internalized, and the intensity with which it is interpreted. It is indeed this willingness to classify it as such that leads to Remigio and Salvatore being singled out as devil-worshippers, even though they only once belonged to the Dolcinian order, whereas many of the monks – including William – are Franciscans. Similarly, while celibacy is emphasized as a virtue from the outset, there are no long sequences of self-flagellation, emotional or otherwise, for Adso after he has sex with the peasant girl; he readily accepts his burgeoning love for her, as does his master, and so sexuality enters the gray area between the monastic sin it is and the purity it holds for Adso, who in awe describes his partner as “radiant as the moon… terrible as the dawn,” poeticizing the event, beautifying it, and then embracing his tenderness for the image of the girl with a gentle ease. It is as if their union and their separate forms of love are clear and true compared with the shades of virtue that shroud the act in the hands of faith and politics. Adso’s youth makes sexuality novel and clean, while William’s age has the measured understanding that there is nothing inherently evil about sex: it is only what it is, and what Adso has told him is only the truth. And finally, the results of these equivocal sins and virtues are usually such that the sins yield much more information than does any virtue, which always embodies some form of reticence, some temperance that clouds the eyes and hearts of both the saint and his watcher. In furious desperation, tortured and debased, Remigio howls more truth at the onlookers than he does in his calculated confession of guilt to the Inquisition; he asserts that his biggest error was in renouncing his poverty, and this statement is of great help when one attempts to interpret the night of the burnings. Animal impulse dominates pious collectedness, and we know more closely the truths of our own world and of that beyond.
For, the film orbits poverty. The deeds of the Dolcinians are discussed repeatedly, as is the position of the Franciscans. Adso mourns the girl’s life at a quiet drone, peering into her squalid hut as he recounts, “And now, as I saw her in the midst of her poverty and squalor, I praised God in my heart that I was a Franciscan. I wanted her to know that I [belonged] to an order dedicated to lifting her people out of their physical destitution, and spiritual deprivation.” What is most interesting about poverty in the film is not, however, its gravity, but its implications. It is Remigio and Salvatore who burn at the stake, not the girl; they are not guilty of the murders for which they die, so that it is as if they die in penance for their departure from the ideal of poverty, while the girl, still in its clutches, never having pretended to be anything other than poor – the girl, who sins by sharing her body for food, who invites Adso to herself for no reason but his beauty and youth, is spared. Adso himself is absolved of his sin of the flesh through a process of redemption: his love for the girl casts her as a symbol, an image to be cherished, just as a monk croons to him of Mary the Blessed at the beginning of the movie, and of her breasts; the image is, however, fortified for Adso with the spiritual satisfaction of the imagined savior. The contrast is strongest at the end of the movie, when the girl makes herself fully vulnerable to him – kissing his hand in tearful supplication – because her love is rawer, plainer, born out of scarcity and suffering: the rose wants Adso as another human, while Adso makes her into an object of beauty – a cerebral joy and nothing else, as is the love of God. And yet there is a faint note of otherness in the ending: “Yesterday’s rose endures in name,” the screen reads, “the naked name is all we have.” Adso never learns the name of the rose, and never puts a name to what they shared; it and she are lost to him, as they are lost to the world.
The movie is a clever jab at hypocrisy – of religion, and authority – it is a jab at the duality of truth, at the dichotomy of good and evil, but it is also strangely tender. As a child I picked up on little of the former, but the latter must have touched me somehow. The friend I pushed the movie on has liked it, but more cleanly; my interpretation seems romantic. Perhaps it is – perhaps it is the tone of the film that has some romance to it, deeply buried under the dry cynicism, the good reason and blood. But whatever romance there is comes from the rose; all the constancy, the humanness, the most honest dirt is hers, and she works with a fluid felinity to make up the heart of the human body, where perhaps William brings the head and its ticking. It will always be her movie for me; it is her pain, her stolen pleasure, her desperation that make the film breathe. She is true, and she is safe: She [is] the only earthly love of my life, and yet I never knew nor ever learned her name.