For reasons I by definition cannot grasp, I have always had an irrational fear of the Middle Ages. What could possibly be scary about a whole millennium when ignorance was enforced draconianly, a new omen of the apocalypse seemed to present itself every week, instruments of torture were a fetish, violence was an ecstatic public spectacle while a single lapse into sexual intercourse could earn you an eternity of hellfire?
I mean, Jesus Christ (pun 75% not intended...), how is everybody not terrified when thinking about the Dark Ages? I doubt there are many eras in human history when life was much worth living, but there is something about the Middle Ages which seems particularly grisly, as though it strove to make virtues out of the human monster's worst excesses.
Even as a Jewish kid, the Christian idea of Hell seemed horrible and real to me, far more vivid than anything in the comparatively hyper-rational faith of my forefathers. When you combine that with the grisly stories we young Jews were inevitably told about the tortures and burnings of Jews, and you begin to wonder if you're the only Jewish kid who had this thought. What if the Christians were right? If Jews are right, the punishment for not heeding Judaism would be a lot more tolerable than the punishment for not heeding Christianity.
And this movie set its scene in the most learned place - a monastery of learned monks who came to study at one of the largest libraries in Christendom. A place where knowledge was only given to the select few who had to pass through terrible ideological rigors merely in order to be permitted access to a few of its books. The library itself is a labyrinth designed to make its knowledge as difficult as possible to obtain. And if that wasn't enough to dissuade the accumulation of knowledge, it was only permitted to be passed through by its two librarians. Of these two, the assistant librarian was a pedophile, while the chief librarian was a fanatic so intense that he wishes to banish laughter from the world, and would sooner burn the entire library to cinder rather than to disclose that it houses the only remaining copy of the missing volume of Aristotle's Poetics about Comedy.
Twenty years later, in the wake of Umberto Eco's death, I'm finally reading the book. The book is something entirely different from the movie. This is the kind of book that makes Americans want to scream because it shouts its erudition from every page. Every page seems to have at least half a dozen references to various medieval and classical scholars whom only a dozen people have read in the last twenty-five years. Nevertheless, it paints a lighter portrait of the Middle Ages. If you were a monastic scholar, it almost seems like a pleasant place to live where you can while away your days with esoteric texts and erudite conversation. It doesn't seem like a bad way to live your life, but unless you could live in a civilization other than a European one, it would be much better to be a cloistered monk than just about any other profession in those years.
Reading the book made me want to go back the movie again. Even at thirty-three, there's something about it that's chills my bones. In addition to the clear influence of so much Bosch and Bruegel, it's principal influence is clearly Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent movie, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Joan herself, in a (literally) iconic performance by Maria Falconetti, is a beautiful woman perpetually posing with a creepily ecstatic visage. But the tribunal of judges who condemn her seems to be made of a group of priests who are half demons, so grotesque are the faces of the actors Dreyer found. If the actors in Dreyer's movie are grotesque to illustrate the grotesquerie of their deed, then The Name of the Rose takes medieval grotesquerie to an entirely new level. The grotesquerie of their faces and bodies seems to coalesce with the grotesquerie residing within their souls. The Name of the Rose is not a masterpiece of a movie - it needs at least another hour to cover the material it presents. But it is a magnificently disturbing one that's all too forgotten. Hopefully Eco's death will prompt people to revisit it.