Monk double feature! At first glance, The Name of the Rose and Into Great Silence couldn’t be any more different — one is a plotless meditation on stillness and solitude, the other an overstuffed megaproduction that bursts at the seams with narrative twists and gleeful cliches. One movie is about the absence of language, the other one revels in linguistic jokes and a cornucopia of literary allusions high and low. But by approaching their common subject from very different points of view, the two films illuminate (ha!) each other.

All things considered, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s adaptation of Umberto Eco‘s bestseller has held up well. Eco’s intellectual games are filtered through Annaud’s lurid lens, by the way of German producer Bernd Eichinger‘s taste for the blockbuster: Eco dressed up semiotic theories with the trimmings of popular entertainment, and in Annaud/Eichinger’s hands, the erudition falls by the wayside in favor of freakish brothers (witness Ron Perlman ham it up as hunchback heretic) and forbidden sex.

It speaks for Eco’s talents as storyteller that even when you rid his book of the lengthy debates about medieval scholarship, it’s still a rip roaring good story, overloaded with literary references (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jorge Luis Borges are the most obvious ones), men who speak “all languages and no language” for him to better hide his polylingual puns, and a tightly plotted story that hinges on all the tropes of monkhood: secret libraries, blind fathers, flagellation, mad heretics, ancient secrets, repressed homosexuality, evil inquisitors, damsels burning at the stake. The Name of the Rose is bursting with signifiers, pointing everywhere at once, while Into Great Silence makes a strong effort not to point anywhere at all, to just be here now. Both movies are using the monastic life for their own ulterior motives; I’d argue that this one does it somewhat more successfully. (The interiors of The Name of the Rose were shot at Kloster Eberbach, a few minutes from where I grew up.)

Der Name der Rose. Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1986. ****