'The Name of the Rose': TV Review

Courtesy of Palomar
Confusing, messy, average.
5/23/2019

Like its predecessor, the latest attempt to turn Umberto Eco's novel into a coherent screen drama falls flat.

Anyone with a cursory understanding of The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco's religious murder mystery (and so much more), probably understands that it's a fool's errand to turn it into something visual. If the 1986 movie starring Sean Connery made this clear, a new miniseries on SundanceTV confirms it beyond a doubt.

The network is merely the repository for a primarily Italian and German production that has "international series" written all over it, like graffiti. (The problem with these hodgepodge productions is that they tend to be underwhelming in execution, with a few big or biggish American or British actors tossed into the mix and everybody trying to make the best of what looks like a decent European vacation, if not a stylish bit of television.)

And certainly a good deal of that is evident in The Name of the Rose, something of a passion project for actor John Turturro, who not only stars in it and executive produces, but is one of four credited writers on the eight-episode miniseries. Turturro is in many ways the best thing about the show, diving into the material's complexity and bringing a steadying screen presence to what, in short order, becomes a real mess.

Eco criticized the feature film for its superficial treatment of the many themes of his book, which at its most basic is a Sherlock Holmes-style murder mystery set in an abbey in A.D. 1327.

The new series is less compelling than convoluted and, ultimately, pretty hokey. The "international series" fatigue sets in quickly, with the patchwork acting performances (and accents) tied to a story that feels quaint and antiquated, as if some characters are in a stage play, others are in a movie, and everybody is desperately searching for gravitas. Three episodes proved the breaking point.

Between the overly dramatic reaction shots, the Holmes-esque exposition and the variable performances, you can be forgiven for any reluctance to dive into the dense context of the story, which involves a fight over the separation of religion and politics between Ludwig of Bavaria, soon to be the Holy Roman Emperor, and the French pope, John XXII. Papal powers, class structure among holy orders, homosexual desires and the allure of witches and women are debated — 1327 was a wild time. This is also a period piece trying to wring drama from the confusion. Your mileage may vary.

Eco's involved plot makes viewers work extra hard to identify the numerous Italian, French, Bavarian and English characters. There are fleeting introductions and then numerous references to Adelmo, Berengar, Venantius, Remigio, Salvatore, Malachi, Jorge (he's the blind one, so that's easy), Alinardo, Benno (he's got the white-blond monk's cut, so he's also easy to recognize), a feral (but stylish!) girl known only as "the girl," and Anna, best not mentioned for her religious subplot, which is possibly more confusing than the main story.

But at least you will recognize Turturro, who plays the Franciscan friar William of Baskerville, the drama's key character. William picks up a young pupil, a would-be Benedictine monk named Adso (Damian Hardung), and off they go to a monastery in northern Italy where William allegedly will help solve the ongoing dispute over religious and political powers. But when they arrive at the abbey there's been a murder (and more will follow), setting up the core mystery.

Michael Emerson plays the Abbot, who is harboring secrets in a kind of pre-Norman Bates way. Rupert Everett plays Bernardo Gui, a religious inquisitor sent by the pope who, no surprise here, has a sadistic streak. The abbey becomes the central meeting place of all of these characters, and it houses a library inside a labyrinth, which becomes its own riddle, one that's central to the story. William is there to figure it all out. If there's a reason to stick with The Name of the Rose, it's Turturro's commitment. He obviously wanted to be the one who cracks the code on how to bring Eco's complicated mixture of religion, philosophy and murder to the screen. 

Ah, but that way madness lies. Directed by Giacomo Battiato and written by Battiato, Andrea Porporati, Nigel Williams and Turturro, The Name of the Rose is all over the map qualitatively. Soon, like riddles and metaphors colliding somewhere in a labyrinth, it implodes upon itself.

Cast: John Turturro, Rupert Everett, Damian Hardung, Michael Emerson, James Cosmo, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Greta Scarano, Richard Sammel, Stefano Fresi, Roberto Herlitzka, Nina Fotaras, Benjamin Stender
Writers: Giacomo Battiato, Andrea Porporati, Nigel Williams, John Turturro
Director: Giacomo Battiato
Premieres: Thursday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (SundanceTV)