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John Turturro probes medieval murder mystery in ‘The Name of the Rose’

“The Name of the Rose,” premiering 10 p.m. Thursday on Sundance TV, is a murder mystery set in the middle of the 14th century.

That may not seem like the obvious choice for summer entertainment, but series star John Turturro thinks the Umberto Eco tale — a bestselling 1980 novel and 1986 movie starring Sean Connery — is more contemporary than you might think.

Turturro plays Franciscan friar William of Baskerville — who is traveling to a papal conference at an Italian abbey when he is unexpectedly asked to solve a series of murders.

“A lot of the killings are tied to a book [in the abbey’s library], on not letting that book be read,” says Turturro, 62. The abbey’s library is a storehouse of human memory rigged with booby traps designed to punish or kill intruders. “All these books were saved by the Arabs. Greek literature translated into Aramaic and Latin,” he says. “The novel covers all different cultures. Even though there were all these wars, they were the ones who saved a lot of literature.”

This monastic Hercule Poirot encounters resistance from the abbey’s monks, who spend their days creating illuminated manuscripts and see William as a threat to their customs, symbolized by a labyrinth under the abbey where cherished books are kept. The “Rose” abbot is played by Michael Emerson (“Lost”), a whack job whose sublimated sexuality takes form in a draping ritual of jewels on a statue of the Blessed Virgin.

“The jewels belonged to his mother,” says Emerson. “He got his worldly wealth by putting her in an insane asylum.”

Michael Emerson as Abbot in "The Name of the Rose"
Michael Emerson as Abbot in “The Name of the Rose”Angelo Turetta/SundanceTV

Besides the murder investigation, William is a thorn in the side of the Catholic church. “The newly organized Franciscans pose an existential threat to the order of the church,” Emerson says. “The Franciscan vow of poverty challenges the princely church where cardinals had land, art and real estate.”

Turturro is one of four writers on the series and says his role was to restore Eco’s original ideas back into the series scripts. “I wanted to use his words and not a watered-down version,” he says. “If you have eight hours [of airtime] you can [capture] the philosophy of something because there are beautiful mathematical thoughts and an openness to all kinds of people. The Franciscans were radicals. They were really left of the left. William understands [that] your only defense against any kind of absolute power is knowledge.”

First, he will have to deal with the Abbot, an ambitious man with designs on greater ecclesiastical authority. “We get a sense that he appears to be a concerned executive we has a bunch of secrets,” says Emerson, who will be back this fall in a new CBS series, “Evil,” from “The Good Wife” creators Robert King and Michelle King. “Some of them will turn out to be dangerous for him and others.”

Turturro’s last TV project, HBO’s “The Night Of,” was also a murder mystery, but very contemporary and set in New York. Will we ever see a second season? Turturro says he’s “going back and forth” on a story idea that both producers Richard Price and Steven Zaillian can agree on. “I’m amenable,” he says. “I’m pulling for it.”

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