Review: Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose) 1×1 (Italy: Rai 1; UK: BBC)

An international crime drama that lacks philosophy

The Name of the Rose

In Italy: Aired on Rai 1 in March
In the UK: Acquired by the BBC

There’s a certain irony that while Netflix is introducing the rest of the world to foreign TV shows made in their native languages and in their own styles, national broadcasters in Europe are still keen on “the international co-production”. These have been around for ages and basically involve two or more big broadcasters from different countries getting together to make a production. They pack the cast with their own native talent… then force them all to speak English. They then simultaneously water down the script for “international tastes” – in other words, strip it of anything that won’t translate easily into other languages or cultures.

Rai 1 (Italy) and Tele München Gruppe (Germany)’s Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose) may be an advance on that standard formula and a definite cut above the average co-production of yore, but it’s also something that feels like it’s been stripped of flavour to suit “international tastes”.

Damian Hardung  and John Turturro in Rai 1 (Italy)'s The Name of the Rose
Damian Hardung and John Turturro in Rai 1 (Italy)’s The Name of the Rose

The Name of the Rose – Eco 1

Tthere aren’t that many modern Italian writers who’ve become virtual household names, but Umberto Eco was one of that brave few. A professor of semiotics, he was an intriguing, post-modern author who subverted expectations and played with form, often humorously, but without ever alienating the reader.

The international bestseller, Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose), was both his debut novel and his calling card to the world. Set in the 14th century, it’s a medieval murder-mystery that feels like an antecedent to the Brother Cadfael books (although it came out three years after the first Cadfael). It sees the Sherlock Holmes-inspired Franciscan friar ‘William of Baskerville’ (as in Hound of…) visiting an isolated Benedictine abbey to participate in a dispute over poverty between representatives of the Franciscan order and the Avignon papacy. When he arrives, however, he discovers one of the monks has seemingly been murdered and he chooses to try to solve the crime using his God-given intellect.

The book is many things. At a surface level, it is a simple tale of mystery and deduction, with Baskerville using his keen insights and powers of observations to try to work out why and how the monk died. But it is also an examination of philosophy – and not philosophy in general but specifically philosophy as it was in the 14th century, as a counterpoint to modern thinking – as well as the power of books, the nature of plot and the power of religion.

So well received was it that it got turned into a movie, with Sean Connery playing Baskerville and a very young Christian Slater playing his young charge, Adso of Melk.

A trailer for The Name of the Rose (1986), starring Sean Connery, Christian Slater and F Murray Abraham
Michael Emerson, James Cosmo and Damian Hurdung in Rai 1's The Name of the Rose
Michael Emerson, James Cosmo and Damian Hurdung in Rai 1’s The Name of the Rose

Internationale

This new eight-part adaptation remains faithful to the book, while watering things down somewhat. Shot almost entirely in English – with some Latin and a hint or two of French in places – it nevertheless follows the traditional co-production route of packing the cast with both German and Italian actors, as well as a few Brits for the meatier dialogue. To be fair, the book is set in Italy and there are German-speaking characters in the book, including the Austrian-born Adso of Melk. But with the exception of the almost-accentless Damian Hurdung, who plays Adso, everyone’s struggling a bit with the English.

However, intriguingly, The Name of the Rose fills the front ranks with some of America’s, rather than Britain’s finest actors. John Turturro (Do the Right Thing, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Quiz Show, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) replaces Connery as Baskerville and turns in an infinitely more nuanced performance as the Franciscan monk and former inquisitor, fascinated by the world and what can be learned about God from observing His works, as well as about the Devil by observing his.

Meanwhile, the Abbott of the abbey is played by Michael Emerson (Lost, Person of Interest). Again, a very subtle actor, Emerson portrays the abbott’s ambiguity well – is he hiding something? If so, what?

Other Brits do appear, with James Cosmo (Trainspotting, Braveheart, Highlander) popping us a monk and Rupert Everett (An Ideal Husband, My Best Friend’s Wedding) playing Baskerville’s nemesis, Bernard Gui, the world’s most famous papal inquisitor. Narrating the piece as the older Adso of Melk is none other than Doctor Who‘s Peter Davison.

But it’s America that gets the acting plaudits this time round, particularly since Everett seems to have realised he is The Bad Guy. He’s definitely not trying to emulate F Murray Abraham, at the very least. Charitably, let’s say he’s trying to make the role his own.

John Turturro and Damian Hurdung in Rai 1's The Name of the Rose
John Turturro and Damian Hurdung in Rai 1’s The Name of the Rose

Not the Platonic absolute

The first episode will be familiar to both readers of the book and those who have watched the movie, as it follows the plot of Eco’s opus relatively faithful. The first 10 minutes are unnecessarily confusing, as it’s filled with a potted flashback/prequel to Adso’s time as a soldier, before his return to the priesthood and eventual meeting with Baskerville. But after we’re introduced to Baskerville and his philosophy of life, as well as the Franciscans’ philosophy of life, we begin the plot proper. This is when everything settles down and Baskerville begins investigating the crime.

With eight parts to play with, The Name of the Rose could have gone for a more or less entirely faithful adaptation of the book. But with crime now being the default genre for international TV, the producers seem at this stage to have gone for something entirely crime-driven, rather than anything willing to make a diversion into more alien waters.

For example, fans of the book will remember the scene in which Baskerville correctly deduces much about an escaped horse and what it must have looked like. The Name of the Rose recreates it very well, but unless I’m misremembering exactly when the discussion takes place in the original novel, the 14th century philosophical debate about the exact nature of the horse’s footprints in the snow and what they tell us about the nature of the universe is more or less absent.

If you don’t know it’s supposed to be there, you won’t miss it and you’ll get to enjoy a fine piece of deduction. If you do, you’ll spot that this is a lesser affair than the book. So far.

John Turturro in Rai 1's The Name of the Rose
John Turturro in Rai 1’s The Name of the Rose

Have faith

Nevertheless, as a period crime drama, The Name of the Rose is far better told, far more interesting and has far more to say than the likes of The Alienist, for example. Turturro makes for an excellent lead and Emerson a delightfully ambiguous foil.

The show is also keen to retain both the historical and the religious contexts of the times, rather than leech them out. Franciscan and Benedictine ideals are explored and Turturro’s acts of piety are genuinely moving. The supporting cast of back-stabbing monks aren’t the greatest actors, but there’s enough characterisation in the script that they don’t sabotage the story too much. Production values are high, although the CGI is occasionally a bit less convincing than it needs to be.

If you’ve never read the book, I think you’ll probably enjoy this for what it is – an international period crime drama. If you have read the book, while you may miss some of Eco’s departures from the conventions of the genre, it’s still a decent adaptation that brings to life many of its best qualities.

Italian teaser trailer for The Name of the Rose
Italian trailer for The Name of the Rose
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