Sean Connery is William of Baskerville, a 14th-century Franciscan Sherlock Holmes – with Christian Slater as his young apprentice, Adso of Melk – who is trying to solve the mystery of a series of murders in a monastery.
The duo enters the Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy to attend a clerical-academic debate concerning matters of doctrine and social policy involving the Franciscans and the official Church.
The violent death of a monk has just occurred and within a few days, more deaths take place. William seeks to discover their cause, with Adso narrating (as an older man), recalling these events of his youth.
Questions of reason or faith are matters of importance in the period, testified to by burnings of witches, the Inquisition, clerical debates, and differences in attitudes between Benedictines and Franciscans toward knowledge.
It transpires that the deaths are ’caused’ by the forbidden reading of an allegedly non-existent book, Aristotle’s Treatise On Comedy, which has been hidden in the great library of the monastery.
Those who die mostly do so from finding and reading the book; its pages have been sprinkled with arsenic by an old, blind, intensely conservative Benedictine. As they read, turning the pages and wetting their fingers, they take in the arsenic and expire.
Knowledge dies with them. The non-existence of the Aristotle Treatise is preserved. As is faith, whose enemies are thought to be paradox, laughter and reason.
Connery has just the right mix of humour and gravitas to make him an ideal guide and the monks, with F Murray Abraham as a bald-pated, bearded inquisitor and Michel Lonsdale as an ambiguous abbot, are a wonderful collection of Breughelesque grotesques.
Most impressive are the claustrophobic sets, especially the labyrinthine library.
William of Baskerville
Adso of Melk
Jorge de Burgos
Feodor Chaliapin Jr.
F. Murray Abraham
Remigio de Varagine
Ubertino de Casale
Michele da Cesena
Jerome of Kaffa
Hugh of Newcastle
Cuthbert of Winchester
Bishop of Alborea