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Hollywood loves serial killers. They're good for business. By definition, they keep coming back and entire franchises can be developed around their taste for blood. Hollywood's newest franchise is Hannibal Lecter, who with Hannibal (based on Thomas Harris' much-maligned novel) makes his third appearance on screen. His first two appearances gave few indications that a franchise was in development, for Hannibal Lecter, while playing an important role in both The Silence of the Lambs and Manhunter, was a supporting character. These movies were primarily concerned with detective work and the effect that hunting a horrible criminal like Lecter can have upon the pursuers. But Hannibal announces its intentions with its title. This is a movie about the serial killer. Julianne Moore as FBI Detective Clarice Starling gets co-lead billing with Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter, but it's Lecter's movie all the way (even though the movie excises the traumatic scenes from Lecter's childhood that the novel posited as rationale for his cannibalistic appetite).

Poor Clarice spends most of her time mulling evidence stored in the basement of the FBI before finally springing into action in the movie's second half. Unlike William Petersen in Manhunter or the first screen Clarice Starling, Jodie Foster, in Silence of the Lambs, Moore disappears altogether from the screen for large periods of time. Meanwhile, the movie plunges headfirst into Grand Guignol horror, courtesy of a disembowelment, rapacious boars, and a certain tasty fondue. This is a movie about horrific acts first; the characters are secondary.

The first half of Hannibal masterfully sets the stage. In particular, a sub-plot involving Giancarlo Giannini as a police detective in Florence, Italy is marvelously effective. Francesco Pazzi (Giannini) stumbles upon Lecter, who is the lead candidate (under an alias, of course) for the curatorship of a prestigious library. (The previous curator mysteriously disappeared.) Following a hunch, Pazzi logs onto the FBI Web site and discovers information about Lecter's horrific deeds--and the $3,000,000 reward for information leading to Lecter's capture. The reward comes courtesy of a horribly mutilated millionaire (Gary Oldman in an uncredited performance) who is the only person to ever survive an attack by Lecter.

Pazzi doesn't realize how dangerous this information may be to his own welfare. Pazzi thinks of the money and greedily misdirects other inquiries (as when Claire attempts to talk to him by telephone). His own fear of Lecter is combined with a nervous lust for the reward. His fingers nearly tremble as he punches his keyboard keys and information about Lecter appears on his computer screen. Never do we see any elation or happiness on his face. He seems to sense the danger and his tenuous hold upon the reward. It's as if Lecter is a dirty secret (like child molestation, maybe) that Pazzi must attempt to deal with before the secret is revealed. Giannini's sorrowful eyes convey pain and furtive desire.

stills from Hannibal
[click photos for larger versions]

This sequence in Florence is so effective that it's almost a disappointment when the movie returns to America. The atmosphere in Florence is remarkably evocative, thick with history and culture, vintage opera and classic architecture. Lecter casually walks through the streets. He shops in the finest stores and dines in the finest cafes. He's a man of the finest taste and intelligence. But he's also well, you know. This contrast between the well-cultivated Hannibal we see on screen and the murderous Hannibal we know from his past exploits creates an overpowering sense of tension, a profound dislocation that suggests a connection between good taste and corruption. This is where the movie succeeds best, as the camera sweeps past ancient arches and magnificent spires and nastily insinuates itself in our own sense of wisdom, manners, and artistic appreciation.

But then, of course, Lecter does indeed make the transatlantic journey (in the blink of an eye in terms of screen time), and Clarice gets to emerge from the shadows of the FBI basement, with Justice Department spokesman Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta) dogging her trail. And soon afterwards, the movie goes skittering into the realm of comic-strip supervillainy, and in the process the movie's human dimension is quite literally consumed. Director Ridley Scott slips his camera down low and hypes scenes for drama when the scenes are already way over-the-top. He backlights his characters as if they're refugees from film noir. As if intoxicated by the intensity and beauty of Florence from the movie's first half, Scott directs the movie's latter sequences as if he's staging an opera of his own. And the results are so absurd that the movie never recovers. Hannibal Lecter becomes a supervillain worthy of battling Batman or Superman. And Clarice (Moore tries, she really does) becomes a mere foil. (The filmmakers do resist the novel's most outrageous development--a budding romance between Lecter and Clarice that leaves then dancing together in the book's final pages.)

Most disappointingly, especially considering the involvement of playwright David Mamet as screenwriter (with major rewrites by Schindler's List screenwriter Steven Zaillian), Hannibal discards its human characters in favor of horrific set pieces. This has the effect of distancing the audience. The horror becomes less effective because it becomes less real. But Hannibal Lecter is most effective when he seems like a real threat. To contemplate the possible existence of men like Lecter (or Jeffrey Dahmer or Ed Gein) can be truly unsettling. But as soon as they become blatantly fictional constructs their power and their danger begins to dissipate. As such, in spite of its Grand Guignol trappings, Hannibal becomes a safe, Hollywood-ized horror opera. Considering the legacy of Hannibal Lecter as evidenced by the vastly underrated Manhunter and the superb The Silence of the Lambs, Ridley Scott's take on this character is exceptionally disappointing.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]

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Movie Web site: Hannibal



Photos: ©2001 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All rights reserved.