Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Hannibal Rising / ** (R)

Hannibal Lecter: Gaspard Ulliel
Lady Murasaki Shikibu: Gong Li
Grutas: Rhys Ifans
Inspector Popil: Dominic West
Dortlich: Richard Brake
Kolnas: Kevin McKidd

MGM and The Weinstein Co. present a film directed by Peter Webber. Written by Thomas Harris, based on his novel. Running time: 117 min. Rated R (for strong grisly violent content and some language/sexual references).

At one point during “Hannibal Rising”, I wished that I hadn’t seen any of the other films in the Hannibal Lecter series. Maybe if I had gone into it without any prior knowledge of serial killer “Hannibal the Cannibal”, I might find more fascination in this story telling the birth of a sociopath. But it seems as if the producers have forgotten what made Hannibal such a powerful character to begin with.

Both this new film and the 2001 film “Hannibal” make his character the focus, whereas in “The Silence of the Lambs” and in both versions of “Red Dragon” – the first novel featuring Hannibal was originally filmed in 1986 as “Manhunter” and then remade in 2002 under the book’s original title “Red Dragon” – Dr. Hannibal Lecter was only a supporting character, whose unique relationship with each story’s protagonist allowed him to represent a necessary evil in the process of preventing further evil acts. The fact that Hannibal was even more monstrous than the people the heroes were chasing made those storylines more menacing, knowing that it took the tool of an ultimate evil to effectively hunt evil.

In “Hannibal Rising” it is Hannibal himself who becomes the hunter and some strange grotesque version of a protagonist. The film shows us Hannibal at 8 years old evacuating with his family from their Lithuanian castle to a country cabin, trying to avoid German and Russian soldiers and looters alike during World War II. Both parents are killed in German and Russian crossfire, and Hannibal is left with only his younger sister Misha in the cabin for the cold winter. Soon Lithuanian looters invade the cabin, taking Hannibal and Misha as prisoners. But when the food runs out, we discover Hannibal’s penchant for cannibalism was learned from his captors.

The movie picks up again after Hannibal (Gaspard Ulleil, “A Very Long Engagement”) has become a young man. During his days at a youth camp for orphaned war survivors, he displays a distinct lack of respect for “the pecking order” and a malicious sense of justice for those who abuse their power. But soon he escapes the camp to search out a distant relation in France. The Lady Murasaki Shikibu (Gong Li, “Miami Vice”) is an aunt with money. Although her Asian origins seem to be deliberately unexplained, they are exploited to present convenient and exotic plot points.

The boy still has the audience’s sympathy during these opening passages because of his horrific war experience. And when the French police inspector Popil (Dominic West, HBO’s “The Wire”) – who specializes in war crimes – suspects Hannibal in the brutal death of a local butcher, there is the hope that another unique relationship will form between Hannibal and his pursuer. This never quite pans out.

The direction by Peter Webber (“Girl with a Pearl Earring”) is moody and does a good job capturing both the depression of Europe following WWII and that glossed over grime quality captured by directors Jonathan Demme, Ridley Scott, and Brett Ratner in previous Hannibal films. But for all the opportunities here, with several murders committed by Hannibal and others, there are never any unforgettable images, such as the crucifixion scene marking Hannibal’s escape from captivity in “The Silence of the Lambs”. Even Hannibal’s first kill, while gruesome, has a calculated and choreographed feel to it, as if Hannibal always knew what he would become. I imagined something more sloppy, like out of “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”, for the early days of this menacing monster. Shouldn’t Hannibal have to teach himself the refinement of killing as one might with art or music?

Hannibal sets out to take vengeance on the men who ate his sister. These villains, written by Thomas Harris in a mold typical of countless thrillers, have gone on to post war success. One, Kolnas (Kevin McKidd, HBO’s “Rome”), has taken the reformist route with a family and legitimate business; another, Grutas (Rhys Ifans, “Enduring Love”), has become a Parisian crimelord whose actions are just a vile as they were during the war. The other looters are either lackeys of Grutas or have also tried to atone for their sins like Kolnas.

In the end I realize that it doesn’t matter whether I have had experience with Hannibal before because there really is no hero in this film at all. The antagonists are war criminals who deserve to pay for their crimes; but no one deserves Hannibal’s vengeance, and it is impossible to care for Hannibal’s reasoning by the bloody end of the film. The essentially good characters of Inspector Popil and Lady Shikibu never become a factor in Hannibal’s preordained journey.

A college professor warned me against the praise of “The Silence of the Lambs”, claiming that the final line, “I’m having an old friend for dinner,” desensitized the audience to the criminal Hannibal really was with its use of humor. I thought that was a fairly minor detail on which to condemn the entire film, but it seems to have been a fairly accurate prediction on the direction the character would take. Hopefully audiences won’t be fooled by the false hero Hannibal has become, and only the filmmakers will be proven desensitized to what they have created.

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