Ten years ago on Valentine’s Day, filmgoers encountered evil incarnate in the form of a stout, balding middle-aged man, standing silently in his cage, an insidious question in his ice-blue eyes. As portrayed unforgettably by Anthony Hopkins, Dr. Hannibal Lecter was a demon for a therapeutic culture, his stunning capacity for empathetic intuition fueling not a conscience, but a sadistic appetite.
Despite the sobriquet “Hannibal the Cannibal,” Lecter’s most terrifying scenes involved not the consumption of human flesh, but his relentless glee in preying on the suffering of the vulnerable. “The Silence of the Lambs” gave psychological horror a bite that made mere gore seem tame by comparison.
For years after the film’s theatrical run ended, audiences were victimized by Lecter’s bastard children in the forms of films like “Seven,” “Copycat” and “The Cell,” which took advantage of their predecessor’s critical accolades to push fetishization of torture and sexual violence into the mainstream of American cinema. And just when the dubious slasher genre seemed on the point of extinction, Hannibal himself has returned.
In summary, “Hannibal” sounds like the ne plus ultra of exploitation filmmaking, a not unreasonable assumption given the fact that it involves mutilation, evisceration and the consumption of a screaming victim by wild pigs. What defense can one really offer for a film in which human flesh is fried in butter and garlic?
Yet “Hannibal” is less in the tradition of “Seven” than of “Young Frankenstein,” Mel Brooks’ gleefully twisted homage to the world of the horror film. A glossily rendered exercise in sophomoric humor, “Hannibal” offers up an unending series of guilty pleasures while paying homage to the cinematic achievement that is “The Silence of the Lambs.” “Hannibal” is derivative, degenerate and frequently delightful.
A string of riffs attesting to the hold its predecessor continues to have on the popular imagination, “Hannibal” is nothing more than a skillful exercise in benign decadence, its impishness taking the edge off its extravagant perversity. The screenwriters are not above the occasional pun. As Lecter bids a courtly farewell to an Italian beauty, he presses her hand to his lips for a parting kiss. “Ciao,” the flamboyant cannibal says, as if for the viewers’ benefit.
Although its plot elements were macabre in the extreme, “Silence” benefited from the unfailing restraint of director Jonathan Demme, novelist Thomas Harris and scenarist Ted Tally, preserving the power of its most gruesome elements by deploying them sparingly. Lecter himself is on-screen for a fraction of the film’s running time; no violence occurs until the film’s third act.
Rather than flirting with the boundaries of self-parody in his sequel to his 1989 bestseller, Harris chose to embrace it orgiastically in describing the duel between the now-fugitive serial killer and his sole surviving victim, a hideously mutilated pederast (played by Gary Oldman in the film) who makes Hannibal a veritable saint by comparison. FBI Agent Clarice Starling (with Julianne Moore taking over the Jodie Foster role), the heroine of the first book, becomes a pawn in their game.
Julianne Moore’s performance in a role made famous by Jodie Foster, who declined a rematch with co-star Anthony Hopkins in “Hannibal,” had been the subject of much speculation prior to the film’s release. Her role, underwritten as it is, is almost irrelevant to the film. The viewer does not witness evil and horror through her eyes. Rather, the viewer shares the monsters’ viewpoint, in which she is barely more than an object.
Abandoning the original’s economy of horror, “Hannibal” scores its successes by serving up the fat that was cut from the first film, offering viewers all the moments that might have brought momentary delight but would have sapped “Silence”‘s narrative power. Screenwriters David Mamet and Steven Zaillian sacrifice suspense to offer us all the gore, action and morbid, self-referential humor that Demme denied us. Most critically, they offer us more of Hannibal, albeit one far less frightening than his earlier incarnation.
The new, overexposed Hannibal has lost both his otherness and his edge. No longer an alien, malevolent intellect, the new Dr. Lecter has decidedly conservative leanings, directing his violence against people for whom the audience has no sympathy — misogynists, criminals, the decadent wealthy, or those who simply lack the good doctor’s charisma.
“Dr. Lecter prefers to eat the rude,” notes a character in one the film’s bursts of mordant wit. “Free-range rude, he calls them.” Lecter becomes an instrument of justice, a combination of aesthetic mentor and comic-book hero as the film moves towards the goriest conclusion in recent memory, a scene so deliberately outre as to be hilarious.
The film’s delightfully gaudy visuals come courtesy of its director, Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Blade Runner”). The choice of director is perhaps ironic given that “Hannibal” is already becoming the undeserving punching bag of cultural critics who stood silent while Scott’s “Gladiator” garnered 12 Oscar nominations.
Their humorless condemnations of the film are a misguided expression of a delayed moral reflex. It seems unjust to find “Hannibal”‘s sardonic parody of its genre’s extremities more reprehensible than the unremitting — and unironic — celebration of brutality beneath “Gladiator”‘s epic trappings. By contrast, “Hannibal”‘s malicious glee rescues it from foulness; it is too perverse to be anything but a meticulously crafted sick joke. Gruesome as it it, “Hannibal” keeps its tongue securely in cheek as it chews on your face.