October 06, 1986 12:00 PM

You can’t argue with the facts: Umberto Eco’s 1980 novel of heresy and murder in a 14th-century Italian monastery has sold an astonishing four million copies in 24 languages. Of course, no figures exist showing how many readers actually understood Eco’s philosophical, theological and epistemological allusions, often rendered in great gobs of untranslated Latin. Those who didn’t comprehend it all were probably holding out for a movie version that would get right to the juicy parts. What emerges onscreen is definitely more whodunit than whothunkit, though the use of Aristotle’s Poetics as a key clue may still confound viewers weaned on Mike Hammer. Still, for a good while the film moves along as a gripping, grandly atmospheric detective story. Sean Connery is superb, bringing reserves of strength and welcome humor to the role of Brother William of Baskerville, a Franciscan Sherlock Holmes determined to unmask the culprit in the bizarre deaths of seven monks. Christian (The Legend of Billie Jean) Slater is wonderfully appealing as his Watson, a 16-year-old novice in whom the older monk sees his younger self. After a young peasant girl (Valentina Vargas) seduces Slater in the hottest love scene of this movie year, Connery delivers a teasing lecture on carnal pleasures that turns out to be the film’s last sign of playfulness. That’s when director Jean-Jacques Annaud, of Quest for Fire fame, loses his sense of pace and balance. There is too much of William (Prizzi’s Honor) Hickey, who overacts shamelessly as a doomsaying mystic. There’s too little of F. Murray (Amadeus) Abraham (see story, p. 112), in fine, vigorous form in the role of the heretic-burning inquisitor. Instead Annaud substitutes gory torture scenes for the real drama, a battle of wits that Connery and Abraham could have delivered with zest. Worse, the film has none of the novel’s passion for the power of the word. Annaud’s monks are all grotesques borrowed from a Fellini nightmare; there’s nary a glimpse of the dedicated transcribers who might make an audience care about the fate of their lives and immortal souls. Those unfamiliar with the book may nod off before Connery gets his man. For them it’s a case of Haec Rosa te fecit obdormire—most of this Rose is a doze. (R)

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