“To be intellectually curious is to be alive,” Umberto Eco once said. The Italian thinker, who died in 2016, was a professor, a novelist — who wrote, most notably and at one time inescapably, “The Name of the Rose” — a semiotician, a columnist and a connoisseur of arcana. He also conveyed a twinkling sense of fun around reading and thinking about the world and literature, a notion that erudition could be not just edifying but entertaining.
“Umberto Eco: A Library of the World” celebrates the man and his many bookshelves, but it’s his symbolic appeal that comes across above all. Davide Ferrario’s documentary front-loads the physicality of books, with drooling pans of libraries from Turin, Italy, to Tianjin, China, before easing into Eco’s eclectic interests, with clips of him dispensing aperçus and quips about memory and the noise of modernity.
Eco’s passion for the literary canon is clear, but we hear more about his wanderings through his favorite oddities, such as Athanasius Kircher, a 17th-century Jesuit scholar who wrote sprawling and sometimes wrongheaded treatises. Well-intentioned dramatic readings from Eco’s writings are punctuated with fond anecdotes from his children and a grandson that burnish the image of Eco as the extravagant scholar. His love of arcana supplies an outward eccentricity that seems to interest the film more than his semiotic work or political commentary (in which he was a critic of Silvio Berlusconi since the 1990s).
Eco’s 1980 debut novel, “The Name of the Rose,” a murder mystery set in a 14th-century monastery, became a surprise runaway success. Eco neatly describes the appeal of such detective-style investigation as being essentially spiritual, asking, who is behind all this?; he’d continue with more esoteric adventures like “Foucault’s Pendulum” (1988). Throughout his work, the frisson of fiction and its assorted deceptions attracted Eco, from speculative travelogues to the phenomenon of lying.
Viewers (and readers) of a certain age may come away wondering whether Eco’s profile has faded somewhat. Ferrario’s documentary presents a figure who feels more firmly European than international, not to mention old-fashioned. (He was definitely a guy who liked to explain his scorn for his cellphone.) But exploring fictional worlds with Eco for a guide remains a diverting and often enlightening pursuit.
Umberto Eco: A Library of the World
Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes. In theaters.