A palimpsest is a parchment or tablet that has been recycled -- written on more than once, with the previous text imperfectly erased and visible beneath the new one. They turned up all the time in days of yore, when documents were inscribed by hand and writing materials rare and costly. The film version of ``The Name of the Rose,'' directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, calls itself ``a palimpsest of Umberto Eco's novel'' referring to the book it's based on -- a long, literary thriller that became an international success a couple of years ago.
That subtitle isn't exactly catchy, but it piqued my interest right away. Most of today's films are so obsessed with mindless entertainment that, if they were designed to be palimpsests of anything, they wouldn't announce the fact; they'd hide it.
Then again, ``palimpsest'' may be just the word for any film that tries to recapture the plot and characters of a novel. As you watch ``The Name of the Rose,'' you see two ``texts'' at the same time. One is the movie itself, complete with Sean Connery, exotic scenery, and some visually graphic sex and violence. The other is Eco's novel, stretched out of shape and stripped of its most exciting literary elements, yet striving gamely to make its presence felt.
The problem with filming ``The Name of the Rose'' is that plot and character are not the novel's most compelling features. The book works less well as a rattling good yarn than as a literary game and a journey into history. Reducing it to a swiftly paced, standard-length movie is like abridging ``Moby Dick'' by scuttling the chapters on whaling. The result is a shadow of the original, and a skimpy one at that.
Even a shadow has its value, though. While the movie translation of ``The Name of the Rose'' ignores Eco's philosophical musings, it does pretty fair justice to his narrative.
This centers on William of Baskerville, whose last name calls Sherlock Holmes to mind -- and for good reason, because this 14th-century monk is a sharp-eyed sleuth who finds that brilliant deductions are ``elementary!'' if one pays attention to the clues. Arriving at an Italian monastery for a conference, William and his young sidekick find themselves in the middle of a dreadful mystery: Someone is murdering monks, apparently rigging the crimes to refer to passages in the book of ``Revelation'' -- and perhaps to another book as well, a forbidden one that may exist in the monastery's vast library.
This situation is tailor-made for Eco's bookishness, and for his fascination with semiology, the science of signs and symbols. That science also fascinates William, who finds hidden significance in everything from footprints in the snow to symbols in ancient tomes. In the novel, he spends much time in the abbey's labyrinthine library, and we peer over his shoulder, studying excerpts and translations provided by Eco on many subjects. By contrast, the movie stresses more physical pursuits -- and when we do enter the mazelike library, it's less to explore the volumes than to watch the good and bad guys play cat-and-mouse among its musty corridors.
This is to be expected from a Hollywood movie, which can hardly tax the patience of Saturday-night audiences with quotations from medieval literature. The filmmakers haven't just trimmed Eco's novel, however. Through questionable choices of emphasis, they have also sensationalized it. The book's one sexual encounter, meant to shed light on the essential innocence of William's sidekick, is played into an unusually clinical sex scene by director Annaud, who has a weakness for such stuff. And when the Inquisition enters the story, the horrifying treatment of accused heretics -- which takes place virtually offstage in the novel -- is magnified into a long, brutal episode of torture and burning that sears the eye but adds little insight to the narrative.
Even without Eco's literary excursions, ``The Name of the Rose'' doesn't need such exaggerations to hold its own as a contemporary entertainment. Moviegoers who choose to see it may be far more pleased with the vigorous performances by Sean Connery and F. Murray Abraham, among others -- and with Tonino delli Colli's vivid cinematography, which positively breathes a medieval atmosphere -- than with the excesses of this uneven palimpsest.