The year is 1327 and in a Benedictine abbey somewhere in the mountains of Italy a mysterious death has occured. Entering the scene are a Franciscan monk, William of Baskerville (Sean Connery), and his young apprentice, Adso of Melk (Christian Slater), who are planning to attend a meeting of their order there concerned with the legitimacy of the wealth of the church. However, they are soon drawn into solving the death of the monk who was found at the bottom of the hill the abbey is built upon; some of the resident monks believe the only explanation rests with the Devil himself. Yet William knows otherwise...
Umberto Eco wrote The Name of the Rose half a decade before the film version made it to the screen, and many of the novel's fans were sceptical that director Jean-Jacques Annaud and his team would be able to do its intricacies justice, but after they saw it they were forced to agree that while it might not have indulged in all that description (there is a narrator but he is used sparingly) it undoubtedly captured the look of it even if the plot was altered and smoothed over. Among the adapters were Andrew Birkin and regular Roman Polanski collaborator Gérard Brach, and they remained sympathetic to the period and, what everyone recalls, the outright grotesquerie.
Few of the actors cast as monks here are candidates for oil paintings - although one, Urs Althaus, was a male model in real life - and these oddballs are what makes the atmosphere distinctively, historically alien. That, and some authentic-looking set design which places the characters in dank and inhospitable surroundings, while still allowing us to be aware that these conditions were luxurious compared to the peasant population's dwellings, some of which are dotted around the hill as they live on the scraps the monks deign to let them survive upon.
It is into this world that William does his best Sherlock Holmes and Connery, at first glance an eccentric choice for the role, really inhabits the habit, proving an inspired selection as he brings out the monk's wisdom, humour and intellect far above that of the majority of his peers, although even he has his limitations, as we find out that he has been a victim of the dreaded Inquisition in years past, and has regretted giving in to them ever since. It is his progressive qualities that render The Name of the Rose not an attack on religion, but a skewering of bad religion, and the star was rarely better in emphasising this theme.
In fact, so clever is William that he almost appears to be a man out of time, and he practically solves the mystery at the halfway mark of the story, leaving the rest of the film to concentrate on the arrival of the corrupt and tyrannical Bernardo Gui (F. Murray Abraham) who intends to come up with his own solution to the crimes as the dead bodies mount up. It is all somehow connected to the library and a secret collection of books, a matter which is very dear to William's heart as he is a huge promoter of the benefits of learning, as Adso discovers under his tutelage. Along with the message that enough information can set you free intellectually and perhaps even spiritually, there's the point that men existing without women can go steadily mad as the monks' piety has sent them round the bend. Adso, at least, finds out the benefits of female company, even if he has to give it up by the poignant conclusion. If The Name of the Rose falls short of classic, it does provide food for thought and novel thrills. Music by James Horner.